Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman relies heavily on a central stylistic conceit: The film unfolds as one continuous uninterrupted shot, the camera unblinking, restlessly moving after Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who has put everything he has—financially, physically, mentally—into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
The shot isn’t really continuous (any savvy viewer will spot the cuts), but the effect is powerful and engaging early on, especially when Keaton shares the lens with Edward Norton, who plays Mike, a wild foil to Keaton’s Riggan. Mike is the artist, the theater actor, the method actor, the real deal; Riggan is just a celebrity—or rather was a celebrity, the star of the Birdman franchise. The nod to Keaton’s Batman films is not even a nod, but one of several meta-crutches that Iñárritu rests all the film’s supposed “weight” on. Birdman wants to be heavy, but it feels hollow. Good thing it’s always in motion.
Birdman suffers by comparison to a handful of other films, notably Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterpiece Russian Ark in particular. Sokurov’s film, also filmed in one continuous take, does a finer job plumbing the mysteries of aesthetics (and any of aesthetics’ supposed nemeses) than Birdman. Sokurov’s film also bewilders, where Birdman’s contours are fairly familiar stuff. Another film that stages (and restages) what Birdman would like to be doing with more force is Charlie Kaufman’s deeply flawed and very brilliant film Synecdoche, New York, an alienating study of art, performance, and audience.
Of course I’ve just done exactly what Keaton’s Riggan howls against late in Birdman’s second act. He confronts the theater critic who has promised to kill his play, screaming that she, as a critic, takes no risks, puts nothing on the line. Her words are just labels; all she does is make weak comparisons. Has Iñárritu built a defense into this scene? Are we to empathize with Keaton’s Riggan? Or with Norton’s Mike? Or with the other characters whom Riggan alternately alienates and draws back in, including his ex-wife, his daughter, his girlfriend, his co-star, and his best friend? Or maybe we empathize with Riggan’s Birdman, the voice that haunts him, the voice that haunts itself into existence?
Anchored by fantastic performances—what a joy to see Keaton carry a movie again—great cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki , and a jazz percussion score, Birdman is an entertaining way to pass two hours, but the profundity it seeks in its final moments simply isn’t there. The film’s formal structuring device, the uninterrupted shot, would like to penetrate its hero’s consciousness, but always seems to fail, necessitating voice-over or dialogue to clumsily underline the main idea. (Should I unfairly contrast this weakness with the far more powerful long-takes in Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void? No? Okay). Birdman strives to explore the tangle between art and entertainment, but at the end we’re left with yet another Hollywood satire of ego and celebrity. Birdman is amusing when it seeks to be penetrating, clever when it seeks to be profound. And it made Raymond Carver’s story look like lurid dinner theater. But these are just labels.