Film Review: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Virtuosic camerawork and a stellar ensemble of actors more than make up for the occasional moment of portentous twaddle in Alejandro G. Iñárritu latest--and maybe his best--film.

Mexican-born filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu first burst onto the world cinema scene in 2000 with Amores Perros, a triptych of wild, just-this-shy-of-improbable narratives that spun out of one inciting incident: a car accident. Confidently juggling multiple tones and storylines, the film was a galvanizing first feature that functioned effectively as both smart social commentary and sheer entertainment. Iñárritu apparently felt guilty about the movie's crowd-pleasing elements, however, because each of his successive features—including 2003's 21 Grams, 2006's Babel and 2010's Biutiful—seemed locked in a competition to see which could bum moviegoers out the most. The various narrative games he played in those films, whether it was fracturing the chronology of 21 Grams or adopting Crash's "Everything is connected" school of hyperlink cinema with Babel, only added to their atmosphere of oppressive mopiness. Watching one of those films was akin to being trapped on a two-hour road trip with Debbie Downer—only her shtick was actually funny.

It appears that even Iñárritu got fed up with being a killjoy, because his fifth feature, Birdman, is the loosest, funniest and boldest movie he's ever made, one that still smugly lectures the audience at times but doesn't deny them the opportunity to experience, you know, pleasure while watching a movie. And much of the pleasure of Birdman extends from the director's choice of leading man, Michael Keaton, enjoying his first turn in the spotlight in quite some time. The actor's relative absence from big-screen star vehicles in the past decade serves as the foundation of the character he plays here, as does his background in Hollywood's reigning genre, which Iñárritu takes direct aim at: the superhero movie. (C'mon—you didn't think it was an accident that Iñárritu cast a former Batman as Birdman, did you?)

Keaton's stand-in, Riggan Thomson, is a past-his-prime movie star, whose once-hot career has been ice-cold ever since he walked away from the comic-book franchise that made him an international screen icon. Seeking to reinvent himself before he descends into irrelevancy for good, the aging Thomson sinks all of his money and (questionable) talent into mounting a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver adaptation that he wrote, directed and stars in. While his nervous business partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis, light years removed from his Hangover persona) and sullen daughter Sam (Emma Stone) watch from the wings, an increasingly unhinged Riggan struggles to maintain control over his play as well as his personal life, which is about to get more complicated after his much-younger girlfriend and co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), reveals that she might be pregnant. The former cinematic superhero also acquires his very own supervillian, Mike Shiner (Ed Norton, also brilliantly channeling his off-screen persona as a prickly malcontent), a staunch Method actor and boyfriend of the show's other lead actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts). Upon joining the production, Mike considers it his duty to the "theat-ah" to ensure that this carpetbagging movie star is put in his place early and often, setting up an adversarial relationship that—in true comic-book fashion—results in a spirited punch-up.

Birdman's already heightened levels of meta-humor and self-reflexive dramaturgy are further elevated by Iñárritu's formal conceit for the film, which fosters the illusion that the entire narrative unfolds in a single, continuous shot. It's an extension of the long-take-dominated visual style that the director's friend, Alfonso Cuarón, has developed and honed in films like Children of Men and Gravity. (The cinematographer behind those two movies, Emmanuel Lubezki, provides his expertise here as well and will likely pick up another well-deserved Oscar nomination for his troubles.) Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is another clear reference point in the way it wielded a first-person point-of-view camera to depict the mental breakdown of a performer and the increasingly blurred lines between onstage fiction and off-stage reality. (In that respect, Bob Fosse's All That Jazz can't be left out of the conversation either, although neither Black Swan nor Birdman approach that level of knockout dramatic impact or insight into the creative process.)

Truth be told, Iñárritu's version of that aesthetic is showier and less seamless, with too many whip pans and convenient darkened doorways providing obvious places for hidden cuts. That said, the vigor required to pull off this stunt clearly energized everyone involved in front of and behind the camera, and lends the experience of watching Birdman a high-wire thrill that's aided immeasurably by Antonio Sanchez's jazzy, percussive score. It also forces Iñárritu to engage with his cast much more intensely than he has in the recent past. In a film like Babel, for example, the actors often felt like morose cogs fulfilling his pessimistic vision; here, to maintain the feeling of jittery energy provoked by the camerawork and the music, Keaton and his co-stars are allowed—and even encouraged—to make unpredictable choices.

And make no mistake: The cast is the real secret to Birdman's success, moreso than Iñárritu and Lubezki's rousing camera trickery. Keaton is marvelous as the master of ceremonies, his sly humor successfully undermining some of the movie's more obnoxiously on-the-nose bits of ponderous proselytizing. (The chief offender in that regard is an F/X-heavy sequence designed to poke fun at comic-book movie set-pieces, with Birdman himself staring directly into the camera and essentially telling the audience that they're all idiots for liking this stuff.) But really all of the actors are working at his level, with Norton and Stone doing particularly fine work finding multiple layers in roles that could have been surface-level caricatures of the jealous co-star and angry daughter, respectively. Borne on the backs of this crack ensemble, Birdman soars above Iñárritu's previous films, defying even the director's own inadvertent attempts to shoot it down.

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