Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has an axe to grind. Quite a few axes, really. In order to grind his axes, he has abandoned his history as the director of aggressively bleak films like 21 Grams and Biutiful and made Birdman, a comedy of sorts. The film follows Riggan Thomson (MIchael Keaton), the former star of the uber successful Birdman trilogy of superhero movies, who is down and out after having turned down a fourth opportunity to don the feathers. Looking to resuscitate his career on the boards of Broadway, he has used the remainder of his Hollywood wealth to write, direct and star in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He is happy with his two female costars (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), but needs a late change when his male co star fails to impress (and also takes a falling ceiling light to the head). Enter prestige actor Mike (Ed Norton) to take over the role shortly before the beginning of previews, and his explosive energy threatens to unravel the entire production. Riggan’s life and mental state continue to deteriorate, despite the best efforts of his producer/friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his assistant/daughter Sam (Emma Stone). The question remains whether he can keep it together through opening night.
What it most striking about Birdman is its design as a film. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (this year’s Oscar winner for Gravity) set it up to act as one long continuous take, but differentiates itself from movies like Rope by not taking place in real time. The camera never breaks away (though there are clear moments where cuts can be and are hidden, which is by no means a detriment), and its perspective shifts from character to character as they interact. It may be following Keaton as he confronts Norton about something, only to follow Norton out of that scene into one with Emma Stone and then transition to her. And throughout all of this, time passes freely and easily, mostly in non-intuitive ways by simply pushing the story forward without calling attention to it. A rehearsal morphs into the preview performance that night with ease, and the filmmakers never lose the thread, minimizing confusion to allow for the audience to catch up to their experiment in short time. The design of the film is dazzling and visionary, and engages the audience on a surface level, allowing them to be more alert to the deeper themes.
The difficulty with Birdman, though, is those deeper themes. Halfway through the film it becomes noticeably clear what Inarritu is trying to do, and by the time the end credits roll, that agenda is confirmed to be just about all that matters. Inarritu is out to make a statement about his disappointment with certain aspects of modern society, namely social media, the preponderance of superhero movies, and the faults of criticism as an enterprise. He uses Riggan as a sounding board, spewing bile about these things with all sorts of flowery and melodramatic language. He hears the voice of his Birdman character (itself a take off on Christian Bale’s full-gravel Batman voice) excoriating him over leaving the life of ease, fame and money behind, always urging him to return to his money maker, but this character is an aggressive and negative one. Jake laments that all the best leading men of Hollywood have been sucked into the superhero machine, making them unavailable to fill in as second lead (going so far as to mention Michael Fassbender, Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner). Sam excoriates her dad for not being active on Twitter or having a Facebook page, coming off as noticeably more shrewish than her other scenes. There is a tired joke about Justin Bieber. Lindsay Duncan enters the film in the second half as a close minded theater critic, much more interested in ruining Riggan’s comeback on principle than bothering to view the work from an unbiased perspective. These scenes and moments dominate the spirit and tone of Birdman, becoming a rolling stone of oppression that threatens to overrun the redemption narrative and everything else of interest. Some course correction could have reigned in the more hateful aspects of the screenplay (written by Inarritu with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo), but the director soldiers on, gleefully and aggressively throwing shade on anything that displeases him.
Somewhere along the line, the main story thread is lost in the din. The comedy ceases being comedy and turns into a deflection mechanic for Inarritu to point to in the event that he is criticized. It is a comedy that goes very long stretches without even a hint of a laugh, and many of the jokes that do make their way in land with a thud. The virtues essentially stop with the shot design and the work of Edward Norton (himself being a sort of walking meta joke, as his character arrives on scene and immediately begins armchair directing and taking control, something for which Norton himself has been infamous on set), and while the other actors are fine, they do not manage to separate themselves as anything other than puppets for Inarritu’s agenda, who looms over every frame like some petulant child with a grudge and a budget that allowed him to force his opinions on an unwitting public. The visual structure of the film is titanic, the score (almost entirely chaotic jazz drums) alluring, and there is so much at the front of Birdman to admire that its utter lack of subtlety and clear agenda are nothing but a disappointment. The surface is all art, but the guts are all artless. Only a director like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu could make a comedy as short-sighted, vindictive and baldly misanthropic as Birdman.