The jury’s out on what this year’s Oscar race is going to look like, but if they gave out an award for the most exhausting movie of the year, I think Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman would be a shoe-in. It’s not tiring in that Michael Bay, pummel-you-into-submission kind of way; rather, the film throws so many different concepts, insights, and genre conventions at the audience that I never really knew where to focus my attention. I mean, what is the movie exactly? It’s definitely a self-aware showbiz satire. But it often plays like a classic dark comedy. There’s also plenty of romance. And a dose of melodrama for good measure. Oh, and it’s also a cynical character study. And a Shakespearean tragedy as well.
See what I mean? If I had to coin a term to describe Birdman, and I guess I need to, I’d call it a “kitchen sink” movie. It tries to be everything and revels in its own messiness, forcing you along without a moment to adjust yourself to its constant tonal metamorphoses. One moment we’re laughing at Michael Keaton. Okay, now we care about his mental well-being? Sure. And now we’re supposed to reflect on what it is we all want from life? Gotcha. If Birdman was a person, I’d tell him/her to take a chill pill. Everything will be alright.
Somehow, though, the script deftly pulls it off; its abrupt, sure, but the character interactions are strong enough that it never feels phony, even though it does at times feel artificial and at times completely surreal. Let’s not forget that the movie opens on an image of Keaton magically levitating. He can also move stuff with his mind with no explanation. When these bizarre, surrealist moments really get out of control, it shows the movie at its best: visceral, surprising, and imaginative.
A big part of the film’s relentless force comes from the camerawork of master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — his camera is almost always in motion and the entire story is made to look like one long continuous take. It’s a filmmaking gimmick to be sure and it loses its effectiveness after a while, but it definitely shows that the film’s fatigue-inducing nature is intentional. Inarritu wants to keep you on your toes and out of breath. He wants to punish and mock you. This is a film with a mean streak.
Usually a film that indicts the audience isn’t a good thing, since that usually comes with a ‘better-than-thou’ attitude. But Inarritu gets away with it because the audience isn’t the only target. It also calls out actors, producers, critics, and the director himself. Basically, the film blasts anyone with a fragile ego — which is to say, most everyone on Earth. It’s incredibly incisive in this way, and likely a very humbling project for everyone involved.
For instance, Michael Keaton plays main character Riggan Thomson, once a famous movie superhero but now completely out of the limelight. His anxieties, insecurities, and restlessness take him deeper and deeper into Crazytown, dragging us along with him. Like Birdman itself serves as a ‘return’ for Keaton, Riggan stages an ambitious play in order to reclaim his former glory. So yeah, Keaton’s playing a very unhinged, very exaggerated version of himself, but one that nevertheless exudes some form of personal truth. Because of this, the performance feels brave, even if he can’t always keep up with the rigorous dramatic acting required (though he nails comedic moments with aplomb).
Edward Norton steals the show both dramatically and comedically, which works perfectly since his character, acclaimed theater actor Mike Shiner, threatens to wrestle control of the stage production away from Riggan. It’s also a wonderfully self-effacing performance, given that Edward Norton is notorious for being a control-freak on set. The rest of the cast does a great job as well. Specifically, Zach Galifianakis is hilarious in every frame he’s in; usually all he has to do to make you laugh is to stand there and look around with his always-befuddled eyes. Emma Stone, as Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, plays up the melodrama with purposeful camp but somehow sells it; her searing monologue directed at her dad’s selfishness is one of the film’s highlights. As a side note, it’s interesting that not only has Keaton been a part of superhero-film history, but so has Norton (The Incredible Hulk) and Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man).
The last movie in which the cast seemed so willing to mock their actual selves was This is the End, but Birdman goes even further by staging a meaningful exploration of why people become this way in their never-ending search for happiness, love, power and artistic self-actualization. It’s in this overly ambitious soul-searching that the film loses it’s incisiveness. It’s not the first big opus to have so much to say that it ends up without any sort of thematic clarity — and it definitely won’t be the last — but it is one of the more frustrating ones. I liken it to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which also seemed to be about everything and nothing all at the same time.
Also like The Master, Birdman has one of those purposefully ambiguous endings that I despise, but it rubs salt in the wound by making you think it’s about to end on an unsatisfying note twice and then actually ending on an even more unsatisfying note! It doesn’t dip its toes into pretentiousness; by the end, it dives into it without shame. Some movies with ambiguous endings make it so audiences are forced to really think about it afterwards. But because the whole movie is such an antsy, grueling experience, it always feels like it’s going to build up to a reward. So when the movie takes the obvious way out instead, I couldn’t help but feel left entirely disappointed. I’m sure repeat viewings will help smooth out the film’s rougher, more puzzling edges, but overall I’d say Birdman enters itself into the pantheon of proclaimed-visionary but ultimately archaic ‘cinematic experiences’. But hey, as the film points out… I’m just a critic. What do I know?
Luckily, Birdman keeps itself from falling completely down the rabbit hole of its own smugness because, just as it has ‘high-brow’ thematic ambitions and goes on and on about the human desire to be desired, it also serves as a very mainstream-feeling comedy (having Galifianakis definitely helps with that). The screenwriters clearly have their pulse on the shape of pop culture, and specifically the current state of a film industry over-inundated by explosive, CGI-crazy superhero films. Its name-dropping references to The Avengers and other big Hollywood names makes this one of the most timely movies of 2014, and it adds a touch of reality to a world that often seems to exist in a bubble.
At its best, Birdman‘s relentless, disorienting and sometimes punishing energy effectively puts the audience in the head of it’s increasingly insane main character. It’s one of the year’s funniest movies, even though it’s the year’s most unorthodox comedy. And it’s cast is second to none, always eager to entertain and unafraid to lay themselves out there, raw. At its worst, the film’s complex narrative and thematic ambitions end up muddled or lost in the film’s breathless shuffle. It suffers greatly from a lack of focus, because it seems too afraid to let up. Overall, the film clashes perplexing yet raw, cluttered yet vacuous, entertaining yet maddening. But it’s a schizophrenic enigma worth watching… or rather, worth subjecting yourself to.
Score: 4 out of 5