You’d think that with all those ingredients, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) would be an instant masterpiece, pushing director Iñárritu into a very select group of celluloid heroes. Indeed, there are moments in the movie – the story of a broke, once-popular Hollywood actor (played by Keaton) now trying to prove himself while putting on an adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories on Broadway – when I thought I was going to complete an experience along the lines of watching The Seventh Seal (1957) for the first time: gorging on a perceptive, memorable account of human frailty, belief and folly.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
Birdman is ambitious stuff. It pairs the trials and tribulations of Keaton’s disturbed character Riggan with an affectionate look at the often-maddening and self-important world of acting, as demonstrated by the inclusion of an arrogant stage thespian who is played with enormous panache by Edward Norton. Not all of it, however, meshes seamlessly. Riggan’s assistant (Emma Stone) is the daughter he never gave enough time to as a child – being the product of a divorce – and this is an unwelcome, clichéd addition that hardly seems relevant, given the larger scope of the film … which shows her father plagued by aural and visual hallucinations of the Birdman superhero he used to portray onscreen. Then there are the multiple endings that build up rather tediously, extending the length of the picture. Iñárritu, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, should’ve left some of this content on the cutting room floor. It ends up feeling unnecessary, tacked-on, and lessens the overall impact.
Plus, there’s the idea that a Hollywood actor performing in a vanity piece on Broadway somehow takes space/jobs/attention away from more deserving theatrical actors, which a bitter critic (ably conveyed by Lindsay Duncan) expresses in the film. Um … isn’t that what much of Broadway is composed of these days? This is old news; you’d be hard-pressed to find a show on the Great White Way that doesn’t have some big star in it. As a native New Yorker, I find it hard to lament this. It’s just the way things have evolved. You can’t turn the clock back; you just gotta roll with it.
Iñárritu does get some things right. The casting is impeccable, from Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer friend to Naomi Watts as another actress in the problematic play the former Birdman has staged. You’ve also got a pulsating drum score by Antonio Sanchez, though some of the incidental music choices – particularly Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which I despise – may not be optimal. And, of course, there’s that you-are-there cinematography by Lubezki, which follows each character around through the tunnels and rooms of backstage to the rooftops of Manhattan. It’s all very showy, and perhaps that’s the movie’s main undoing. You do, ultimately, get the feeling that you’re watching a film, and that’s disassociating. It is Keaton’s picture from an acting perspective; he’s magnificent, showcasing all the torture and anger of a lost, not-very-talented thespian soul. But it’s Iñárritu’s cinematically, and he deluges us with images, sounds, feelings. We have to come up for air at some point, and he doesn’t let us. It’s ultimately disappointing. Perhaps a great misfire.
I can’t recommend that Iñárritu use more reserve or subtlety in his next movie. This is a particular, distinct style, and it has dash, even splendour. I do hope, however, that some of the messiness exemplified in Birdman isn’t evident in his future projects. He’s a real talent and merits watching. Greater things are to be expected of him. And I’m sure we’ll get them.
In the meantime, I’d recommend watching Birdman once, and that’s it. I don’t know if it’s worth seeing more times, as most masterpieces are. But that’s my personal viewpoint. This movie hits hard from many angles. It’s where it misses that it makes the biggest impact.