Birdman comes close to greatness. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s execution of the long take is so successful it almost makes me forget about everything else in the film. I love how it moves from supposed fantasy to supposed reality without cuts, removing the objectivity that comes with a shot change. Watching fantasy elements shift into reality within a single visual space is consistently captivating.
Films train us to process each shot within the context of the shots prior to it, but watching Birdman requires you to keep large chunks of the film in your mind at once. Not cutting away sends mixed signals about the nature of what we’re seeing. This changes the entire film-audience relationship. In terms of form, the film might as well be speaking a foreign language.
And then writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Lubezki blur things further by cutting out transitions from off- and backstage to on-stage. Their filmmaking techniques compare two artistic mediums in a way that parallels the collapse of their “realities.”
Too bad about the rest of it, though. Birdman is a frenzied, anxious thing, and while that can work in an obsessively focused film like Whiplash, here it just feels inattentive and lazy. For a film that by its very nature is consistently visually coherent, it can’t keep its mind on a single idea for longer than five minutes.
In one moment the film talks about cultural relevancy in an age of viral sensations. In the next moment, it talks about a critic’s responsibility to art. In another, it talks about the difference between fame and prestige, and then the power of a movie star persona, and on and on. All of these concepts might be interesting to explore on their own, but Birdman just throws them in the blender without even attempting to connect them coherently.
Maybe that’s the point; perhaps Iñárritu’s film is supposed to mirror the frantic atmosphere of a Broadway production. That’s a fine idea for a film. There’s just not much to chew on intellectually, and Birdman tries to compensate by throwing out a million different ideas.
The movie needed to either be severely trimmed down (to elaborate more thoroughly on one topic) or expanded to miniseries length (giving Iñárritu room to fully explore a variety of topics). If Birdman didn’t come so close to being really fascinating, I’d probably be a lot less harsh on it.
Movie Verdict: Fail
Back in 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman one sheet ran with the tagline: “You’ll believe a man can fly.” More than three decades later, another film has finally lived up to that axiom – and it isn’t Man of Steel.
Birdman is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s foray into comedy following a career of intense dramas that include the award-winning Babel and Biutiful. The Mexican director shows a particular acumen for the genre as he guides his actors through a complex, offbeat story about love, celebrity and disenfranchisement. It helps that he’s working form his own snappy script, co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo.
Gravity‘s Emmanuel Lubezki shot the film almost entirely as a oner (hidden transitions aside). This stylistic choice demands incredible timing, memorization and stamina on the part of the actors. Fortunately, the ensemble is up to the challenge. Iñárritu’s committed direction meshes perfectly with a veteran cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts and Ed Norton.
Keaton delivers a standout role as Riggan Thompson, a bizarro-version of himself post the Batman franchise (despite his claims to the contrary) whose slip into irrelevance causes him to try put on a Raymond Carver-inspired Broadway play. Stone offers a jaw-dropping monologue amid a quietly affecting role as Riggan’s daughter, Sam; she is quickly making a case for her inclusion among the best actors of her generation. And Norton, playfully riffing on his real-life reputation for ego, is a headstrong, overbearing actor named Mike Shiner whose own struggle for identity clashes with Riggan’s quest to adapt Carver to the stage.
Birdman finds its roots in movies about art, theater and cinema. It draws on Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, two films that depict the dreamlike headspace of actors and directors. And like those films, I came away not sure what to think about Iñárritu’s latest. The movie takes on too many themes; suicide, superhero franchises, love and authorship all rear their heads. It becomes overwhelming.
Still, I can’t deny that I enjoyed following Riggan’s story. It helps that the movie barely gives you time to think about what’s happening until it’s over thanks to the trance-like beat of Antonio Sánchez’s drum score.
At the start of the movie, we see a simple mantra written on a piece of paper attached to Riggan’s dressing room mirror. It reads: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing.” That and the almost villainous role of critics in the film seem to preclude any judgement about Birdman. But whatever: it’s a good flick. Go watch it.
Movie Verdict: Win
The following podcast is an in-depth discussion of Birdman. Naturally, this includes spoilers about the film’s plot, score, characters, cinematography, etc. You can listen to the podcast via the player below, download it here or subscribe via iTunes. Enjoy!
Final Verdict: Meh (But see it anyway.)
So did Iñárritu bite off more than he could chew with Birdman? Or is there something deeper to his depiction of an actor/director’s descent into madness? Let us know in the comments!