Birdman is a madcap, relentless, freewheeling tour through one man’s inner demons, as they are brought to life on stage and in his mind and in the guise of a massive computer-generated bird monster. If that description sounds exhausting, contradictory and slightly maddening, well, so is Birdman itself. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s latest film is so full of brilliant and crazy ideas that it sometimes doesn’t know what to do with them—at times, it seems enamored of its own indulgence. But in a movie industry dominated by safe formulas, the ambition and sheer bravura of Birdman is worth celebrating, and frequently thrilling.
The movie’s central, self-aware conceit is built around its casting: Michael Keaton (the original Batman) stars as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up actor famous for starring as the superhero Birdman. As the movie begins, he is in the midst of mounting a passion project on Broadway, trying to recapture the limelight with a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. What we see of Riggan’s play is laughably overblown and decidedly middlebrow, but artistic merit is the least of his worries. While trying to keep the disastrous production afloat, Riggan also must keep an eye on his recovering addict of a daughter (Emma Stone), his narcissistic showboat of a star (Edward Norton), and the nagging voice of his alter ego Birdman, who torments him with commentary about his own irrelevance.
Meta-movies about artists struggling to create their masterpiece while confronting personal demons are a tried-and-true staple of arthouse cinema. Black Swan may be Birdman’s closest cousin, but its DNA has traces of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Birdman’s main contribution to this unlikely genre is its stunning technique. Working with the virtuoso cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life), Inarritu has crafted the film to look like one seamless, fluid shot, even as the story shifts gears temporally and tonally, going from black comedy to psychological drama to absurd farce. You never know quite where this movie is going, and its restless, roving energy never flags. Much of the backstage action is accompanied by a jazzy drum score, and the movie itself shares some qualities with good jazz: it’s energetic, unpredictable, and seemingly improvisatory, but anchored all along by carefully controlled technique.
The film’s soloists, as it were, are no less impressive. Keaton is at the center of it all, reaffirming his talent with a performance driven by deep currents of sadness, rage and confusion, with a hint of self-mockery. Norton plays the role of the arrogant method actor to perfection, drawing on a comedic streak that has often been underutilized in his career. Emma Stone continues to prove her mettle with a powerful performance in a potentially cliche role, while even Zach Galifianakis delivers a surprisingly restrained turn as Riggan’s manager.
At a certain point, though, this movie, which is so aesthetically dynamic and surprising, begins to be weighed down by the sameness of its content. For all the talent of the cast, the characters are often thin caricatures rather than fully rounded characters. Norton’s character in particular has a peculiar tendency to dramatically shift personality from scene to scene. Much of the movie is devoted to loud screaming matches and grandstanding monologues, which gets tiresome. On a whole, the movie is a little too self-congratulatory, giving itself an implicit pat on the back for being the antidote to all those soulless superhero movies.
For all that, though, Birdman is a genuinely liberating cinematic experience. Inarritu and his team have developed an expressive style that both ratchets up the stakes of the plot and provides a stream-of-consciousness look into one man’s psyche. That is no small feat, and it helps to cover up the film’s larger conceptual limitations. Ultimately, the movie is a textbook example of technique triumphing over content. There may be less than meets the eye in Birdman, but there is so much meeting the eye at any given moment that it hardly matters.
Featured Image Courtesy of New Regency Pictures