It’s hard to take a movie seriously when it features an impassioned monologue on social media and human connection, delivered by a character who later refers to a “Twitter page.”
That’s one of a continuous stream of impassioned monologues delivered in Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. They’re all a little hackneyed, and you keep waiting for the movie to acknowledge that. There’s a hint of a wink only once; other than that, director Alejandro González Iñárritu seems to think he’s successfully merged Bergman and Altman.
Altman—as in Robert, the late director of Nashville and The Player—is the most obvious reference here. (I wouldn’t have guessed that this year’s most-buzzed Oscar contender would beg close comparison to the Prairie Home Companion movie, but here we are.) Altman was known for his long tracking shots and his interest in showbiz behind the scenes; Birdman is a behind-the-scenes look at showbiz that appears to consist of a single two-hour tracking shot.
Yep, one single shot that isn’t broken up with cuts until the very end of the film. Though we know Iñárritu and his acclaimed director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki had the help of digital wizardry that Altman never did, it’s still a dazzling achievement that makes this often entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying movie worth watching at least once.
The plot concerns Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an aging actor who walked away from a blockbuster franchise decades ago and is now making a return to the public eye by writing, directing, and starring in his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His costars are his young lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough), alcoholic acting genius Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), and his former lover Lesley (Naomi Watts). Helping out behind the scenes is Thomson’s ultrasexy daughter (Emma Stone), who’s fresh out of rehab and hoping to get a contact high via Shiner’s bodily fluids.
That setup sounds like Noises Off or Soapdish, but though Iñárritu—who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo, and Alexander Dinelaris, Jr.—has a little fun with the absurdities of the situation, Birdman steadfastly refuses to allow itself to become a farce. That would be fine if the film succeeded as a drama, but scene after scene gets hung up on its own weight.
Whether “Michael Keaton comeback” is a phrase that causes you to squeal with delight or roll your eyes, Keaton gives this choice role a good go. He can still turn on the crazy that’s always given him an on-screen edge, but Birdman doesn’t give him anything to push against except for himself. The film works best when it just lets him do that—or throws him up against Norton on high-rev—but for much of Birdman, Keaton is adrift among half-assed subplots.
The script puts these characters through predictable paces, and doesn’t even bother to walk them to the finish line. Is Thomson’s attorney (Zach Galifinakis) a nervous nebbish? Has Thomson’s lover just missed a period? Does the alcoholic heartthrob have performance issues of the most intimate nature? Does the hot young chick want him anyway? Do both guys’ exes still hold poignant flames that flare up precisely when convenient? I’d end this paragraph with a rhetorical “Is the Pope Catholic?”, but that’s actually a more complicated question to answer than any of the other ones posed here.
There’s also an element of magical realism that’s, by and large, handled in the most obvious way: Birdman’s dark-feathered costume suggests Black Swan played as farce, but not the kind of farce that’s ha-ha funny. The conceit pays off in one virtuoso sequence when Thomson has an out-of-body experience; that, of course, is the cool part that was grabbed for the trailer. Let me clarify, as a service to the reader: there is one cool part in this movie. Just that one.
The movie also has a critic (Lindsay Duncan)—only one, because despite the lectures about social media, everyone in Birdman is convinced that the fate of a Broadway play still rests entirely, one hundred percent, on a New York Times review written by a grey-haired ice queen who writes her copy in longhand while knocking back Martinis at the bar around the corner from the theater. I mean, of course that’s how I wrote this review, but I used a laptop. Gotta keep up on that Twitter page.