Birdman is audacious, original, and bold. It’s also inscrutable, off-putting, and overlong. To be sure, there is much to admire in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s mad jumble of a movie, which takes place in and around the St. James Theatre in Manhattan and unfolds as if it were one long, continuous take. This visual equivalent of an author’s stream-of-consciousness narration is impressive, and sometimes arresting, but it can also be exhausting. The same can be said of the protagonist, a wildly insecure actor named Riggan Thomson. (His peculiar moniker is emblematic of the film as a whole. Riggan?) Michael Keaton delivers a bravura performance as a once-successful Hollywood star, about to make his Broadway debut, who is desperate for approval. Most fans still associate him with the superhero character called Birdman he played years ago: now he wants to prove himself as an actor, once and for all. He’s even directing the play; an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.
Nothing about the film is conventional, which is often to its credit. But at the outset, I was distracted by Antonio Sanchez’s loud, propulsive drum-solo score. As the film went on I acclimated, somewhat, and even found it appropriate to the material, but like many other aspects of the film, it required considerable effort.
Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo also infuse their high-pitched film with elements of mysticism and the supernatural. Some may interpret these moments—or indeed, the entire narrative—as Keaton’s fever-dream. In any case, they constitute one more unusual ingredient that sets Birdman apart.
At the heart of this dramatic maelstrom is a gallery of sharply-etched performances. Keaton leads the way, and he is matched by Zach Galifianakis, in an atypically serious role as the actor’s producer and long-suffering best friend; Edward Norton, as an actor who joins the troupe at the last minute and proves to be a loose cannon, on and offstage; Naomi Watts, as his loyal leading lady; and, in the juiciest part of her career to date, Emma Stone, as Keaton’s daughter, who’s just out of rehab and working for her father. One key scene she shares with Norton on the roof of the theater could prove to be a career game-changer for the actress. Other key female roles are admirably filled by three of the brightest talents on the scene: Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, and Lindsay Duncan.
Towering above them all is Keaton, in a virtuoso turn the likes of which he hasn’t had in ages. (Think of the unforgettable performance he gave decades ago in Beetlejuice: this has the same incredible intensity.) There’s just one problem: I’m not sure why we’re supposed to care about this isolated, self-absorbed, unfathomable character.
Birdman has a lot going for it, and certainly shows off the talents of its director and star, but it’s all over the place—visually, tonally, emotionally. I admire many of its components but just can’t hop on the bandwagon with critics who have deemed it brilliant.