Birdman Edward Norton

Birdman Review: A Baffling and Glorious Mess

Friday, October 31, 2014 Rob Samuelson


Director: Alejandro González-Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro González-Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough

When people write about films with mixed reviews, they most often refer to some people enjoying the experience and some disliking it. There are glowing reviews and bitter takedowns contained within the critical reaction, often with little in between. It's a rarer thing to have a movie that deserves both, often at the same time.

Birdman is that film. It is at once dazzling and disastrous. Its storytelling devices are as forceful, and repetitious, as a jackhammer. It has so much to say about aging, the entertainment industry, family, manhood, grace, artistic affectation, insecurity, and ambition, and it doesn't stop making those points over and over again. It suffers from “importance”-itis, where every line that ties into its themes – so, so many – makes itself known, with the music building to bombastic heights so you are absolutely sure you understand what's happening. These are the makings of passable melodrama. However, director and co-writer Iñárritu takes extra steps during each of these moments to call the movie out for its pretension, a wink, a joke that shows he and his collaborators “get it.” It's all part of the plan. It's making a point about silly people pretending they're not silly. But it still seems to mean the initial point.

So which is it? Are these people lying to themselves and deserving of ridicule? Are they striving for something transcendent and therefore worthy of commendation? Is it both? Neither? The movie, and Iñárritu, have no idea, and that's part of the tantalizing and frustrating nature of the picture. It doesn't know what it wants to be, can't choose a path, so it tries to do everything and its failures are as terrible as its successes spectacular. In doing so, Iñárritu is like the baseball player who admires a long fly ball off the bat only to be shocked when it bounces off the wall for a single -- there's value in that, but it's not what it could be.

The stars and their characters fair extraordinarily well given the schizophrenic confines of the narrative. Michael Keaton, in a meta exploration of his own career, plays Riggan, a middle aged former onscreen superhero who throws himself into a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, in which he has invested everything to write, direct, and star. Keaton lets out his unhinged, maniacal side to paint a character breaking under his self-imposed pressure to be more than he is. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is a recent graduate of a rehab program and trying her best to connect with her distant dad as his assistant during the production. Edward Norton is the infuriatingly fickle Broadway star who “pretends” in every part of his life except for his moments of “truth” onstage.

If it were those three wrestling – literally at times – with each other,
Birdman would probably be a phenomenal cinematic achievement. Each distinctly represents fundamentally divergent worldviews, and that tension is the stuff of magic. Norton and his artiste affectations, for all their sometimes brilliance, serve as a detriment to getting the play done with the efficiency Keaton's shattered psyche – where his superhero alter-ego talks to him in voiceover – requires. Stone represents the pull of modernity and the wakeup call everyone needs to stop thinking the world revolves around them.

But those three aren't the only focus. There are former wives, current (possibly pregnant) girlfriends, a stressed best friend trying to bring the money together to simply make the show go on, an influential critic threatening to destroy the play sight unseen, and more that pull the film away from its strengths.

It's a shame because the muddled, multi-plotted film achieves so much on the technical side of things, too. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (
Gravity) again shoots a visual masterpiece, with Steadicam photography, extreme color saturation, and lighting that complements every emotion the characters feel at a given moment. The way he and Iñárritu stitch lengthy shots together to create the illusion that the film is all done in one long take is as ambitious as anything I've seen, period – and it mostly works.

These technical, visual, and performative accomplishments are what make Birdman such a fascinating misstep. If Iñárritu had trusted himself enough to let the visual medium speak for itself, he'd have a masterpiece on his hands. But his constant unnecessary intrusion to clarify what his themes mean actually serves to confuse his message.

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