With a frenetic, drum-only score and a seamless presentation, Alejandro G. Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams)’s Birdman quickly declares itself different and better than the rest. But does the film deliver on its promise of being a unique, exhilarating tour-de-force? My review below.
Lightning never strikes twice. Hot off the endless hysteria (somewhat deservedly so) of the infamous 17 minute opening shot of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity that had him the Academy Award walking in the door, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is back with the rationale “if they loved 17 continuous minutes, they’ll go crazy for a whole film!” in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, dominating both the film and the subsequent conversation again with a camera that jolts to life when Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) unfolds himself from his serene position in front of his dressing room window, and doesn’t stop for the next 2 hours.
The camera is another, domineering character in Riggan’s life, the devil on his shoulder, whispering in his ear, looking on at every moment. Riggan, a failed actor famous for playing Birdman, a popular superhero in the alternate universe New York the film occurs in. He’s mounting a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a venture that has been cursed from the beginning, from cast members getting knocked out cold by falling stage lights, leading to him have to bring in his biggest rival Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), similarly ego and method acting consumed, to dealing with his on-again-off-again girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), first time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), and his wayward daughter Sam (Emma Stone). He’s also taunted by his on-screen counterpart in his head, leading to constant fantasies in his everyday life and increasingly erratic behaviour.
There’s a reason Lubezki’s work in Gravity was met with such adoration, which was because it occupied the space so well and was used to effectively. The opening of that film served to set the scene, the claustrophobia that still exists in such an infinite space, the desperation. It served that purpose perfectly, and knew when to stop. In Birdman, the camerawork and stream-of-consciousness structure makes for an excellent first scene, but beyond that feels extremely gimmicky and distracting. The objective in this presentation is to create the illusion that the entirety of Riggan’s life is a theatre performance, plagued by his most popular role, but doesn’t achieve that, and instead feels like a tired trick designed to make large audiences rave about how excellent the film they just saw was.
Inarritu’s film is indeed designed for the big houses, a wannabe-arthouse film filled to the brim with high-mindedness, psuedo-intellectualism, and braggadocio begging for the audience to feel exhilarated. The seamlessness of Riggan’s hallucinations, the ever-present drum beat, the never ending dialogue selling ideas of failure and redemption and artistic integrity and disconnection from reality and the media, all is intended to create an overwhelming emotional maelstrom that sweeps the audience to their feet in rapturous applause and emotion. Inarritu himself gets caught up in the self-importance, the emotional high of what he’s making, a compulsiveness to overstuff, resulting in some sadly on-the-nose visuals and unnecessary plot points that only serve to take the audience out of the story.
Despite all its attempts at emotional involvement, however, I never felt as involved in Birdman as it so desperately wanted me to be, and this lack of an emotional connection has resulted in the absence of a lasting impression. There’s a lot to admire and enjoy here, from performances (Andrea Riseborough was my favourite, finally in a ‘big’ film) to certain scenes, but ultimately, Birdman is a relentless, overinflated spectacle that, like the production Riggan is mounting (parallels are important here) is moments from collapsing under its weight. Depending on how you look at it, that could be a good thing or a bad thing.