Birdman doesn't have any right being as fantastic as it is. Structured around a gimmick—the whole movie is meant to look like one continuous shot—and featuring a potentially eye-rolling plot device (a has-been actor's personal and professional life comes crashing down on him in the days before his theoretical big comeback), it ought to collapse beneath the weight of its own pretensions. And yet, the damn thing is a stubborn little wonder, even if it is gimmicky and smug and sometimes exasperating. To make a movie that risks such obnoxiousness and have it turn out this great is close to a miracle, and also one definition of true artistry.
The film's lead is Michael Keaton, but its co-star is really director and co-writer Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Coming to the world's attention with 2000's terrific Amores Perros, he has struggled since to find the same mix of audacity, wit, and emotional wallop that seemed to come so effortlessly in that jumbled collection of stories set in Mexico City. With 21 Grams, Babel,and Biutiful, he had grown increasingly dependent on manipulative narrative tricks and bigger-is-better shocks to bowl us over.
Birdman is just as overblown and self-consciously clever as Iñárritu's weakest films, but here it almost all works. Partly it's because, for once, he doesn't treat his characters' misery as a passion play: There are plenty of affecting moments here, but we don't feel like we're being perpetually beaten up by everyone's sorrow. For a movie about art, aging, celebrity, regret, and the corrosiveness of modern life, the result is relatively light on its feet. It even has a pretty funny boner joke.
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who in the early 1990s walked away from the titular lucrative comic-book-movie franchise. (After Birdman 3, he'd had enough.) Unable to establish much of a career since, he decides that he's going to do something bold, staging a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that he'll write, direct, and star in. As the movie begins, he's mere days away from opening night, and things aren't looking good. He hates the other male lead and has to recast with Mike Shiner, a self-absorbed, brilliant, prickly actor played by Edward Norton, who's essentially doing a riff on the difficult-artiste persona most of us assume he embodies in real life. Butting heads with Mike while negotiating a romantic relationship with his other co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Riggan is facing his own personal 8 1/2. The fact that he's also somehow able to levitate and move things with his mind is, in this universe, merely odd rather than alarming.
As mentioned, Iñárritu dramatizes Riggan's existential crisis by utilizing swooping Steadicam cameras in what appears to be one long unbroken shot as our weary hero wanders from his dressing room to the stage and all points in between, arguing with his loyal lawyer (a mostly dialed-down Zach Galifianakis) and reassuring a nervous co-star (Naomi Watts). Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, who also was the cameraman for Gravity and Terrence Malick's recent films, Birdman floats from scene to scene, deftly capturing the chaos swirling around and inside Riggan.
At first, the continuous-shot strategy is dazzling but also distracting. Even though the cuts are nearly invisible, you worry that after a while, the technique will lose its novelty. (Staging such choreographed scenes is an impressive feat, but it's a little hard to settle into Riggan's predicament when Iñárritu keeps reminding us of his own technical achievement.) But soon, it becomes clear that such concerns don't matter, because frankly, the whole movie is pitched at that same show-off-y frequency. Iñárritu has never done subtle—it's very possible he's paid by the crescendo—but when he's really locked in, his movies can be exhilarating, a seemingly endless array of "Look at what I can do!" gestures. Birdman wraps you up in its juicy, melodramatic fervor—it's like a magic trick where you keep waiting to figure out the secret, but also hoping that you don't, because what fun would that be?
Conjuring up such a spell is essential, considering that the film doesn't have much new to say about any of the big subjects it tackles. Riggin's personal crossroads isn't particularly interesting in its broad strokes, and the movie's satire of Hollywood blockbusters and social media—it's almost as cranky-old-man reactionary about the internet as current festival punching bag Men, Women & Children—is pretty woeful. But Birdman's energy transcends those limitations, especially thanks to the acting.
On paper, it's an easy joke: Keaton (who used to be Batman and was never as big a star afterward) is playing a guy who used to be Birdman and was never as big a star afterward. But his performance shreds those cheeky art-imitates-life comparisons as he digs into the legitimate pathos of a washed-up actor, melancholy ex-husband, and failed father who's hoping that somehow this Carver play can magically fix everything. Despite trying to be a showbiz satire—there are mediocre, insider-y jabs at Marvel's box-office dominance and Meg Ryan's plastic surgery—Birdman actually cares about Riggan enough to take his anxieties seriously.
There's a persistent loopiness hovering along the edges here—everyone around Riggan is a slightly heightened version of a real person—but the surreality only makes his crisis more vivid. Rather than grounding the proceedings in real time, the movie's single-shot strategy unmoors us from the everyday, leaving us with the giddy impression that just about anything could happen, an impression rewarded by some rather bravura twists in the film's final third.
If ultimately Birdman is one big show, it's underpinned with enough genuine feeling that it leaves you slightly dazed. Norton has a ball playing this obnoxiously uncompromising actor, but he also has beautifully understated scenes with Riggin's fetching, ex-addict daughter (a very sly Emma Stone) that are romantic and wistful at the same time. And for all its zooming cameras and elaborate blocking, Birdman finds the time for perfectly calibrated moments between Riggan and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) in which Keaton comes across as a raw wound, the years of his character's creative bankruptcy and spiritual isolation smeared across his face.
Iñárritu has always been a dramatic maximalist, and here he floods the soundtrack with frantic drum solos and, in one scene, throws in an aside of a bit player intoning Macbeth's "sound and fury" soliloquy, because, hey, it kinda fits. Discipline and restraint aren't his thing. But when he finds the right slightly unhinged material, he can make you believe that a bunch of gimmicks (and a man) can fly.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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