Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

You can’t blame a movie for trying, and oh, how hard Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) tries; wildly, valiantly, messily, constantly. It tries so hard, and with such inconsistent success, that one might argue it tries too hard, but that’s a silly criticism that no self-respecting Abel Gance fan could endorse, and we at Sad Hill Media are resolutely pro-Gance.

A fairer argument would be “It tries too hard where it fails, and hard enough where it succeeds.” To its credit, one of the film’s many amusing meta quirks is that it's just as prepared to face the humiliation of public failure as its protagonist: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, who more or less disappeared from public view after playing Batman in the early 90s, and here attempts a serious artistic comeback), a dwindling movie star, who more or less disappeared from public view after playing Birdman in the early 90s, and here attempts a serious artistic comeback by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. From that casting, the gist of the movie’s game is pretty clear: satirize show-business personalities and their egos in the public eye, with real-life know-how implied by metatextual nods in the film’s cast and screenplay. Given the slowly falling star of director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu since the wild acclaim of his debut Amores Perros, one can’t help but think of his own career; this resemblance is no doubt also intentional, if not necessarily autobiographical.

It’s set up as a critical self-satire, in a sense, one distanced from the movies mostly by the Broadway setting, but unlike Sunset Blvd. or , Birdman isn’t really all that excoriating. For all the barbs that Riggan and his cast and family throw at each other in the chaotic days leading up to the play’s premiere, Iñárritu is determined to redeem and humanize them all. All, that is, save for a businessman, a film critic, and the public at large, the harshest judgment of whom the film saves for its final sequence. One of Birdman's more unfortunate traits is that it paints an arts community where only the suffering, imperfect artists themselves have noble causes or motives at bottom, and the rest are preening or pompous leeches. Ironically, that makes Iñárritu and co. far more cynical than Fellini or Wilder.

That’s not the film’s main thesis, thankfully, and so it can be mentally backgrounded in favour of where the film’s strengths (and other flaws) lie: as a freewheeling, sympathetic character study. Keaton’s central performance is showy, but in a way that’s resolutely tuned to the showiness of the film around him, and he pulls off enough surprising character beats and turns that it’s easily the best thing I’ve seen him do. The supporting cast is strong all round, albeit sometimes the film’s tonal wishy-washiness seems to leave them a little at sea sometimes — the film doesn’t quite carry off its frequent and murky shifts between comedy and melodrama.

A lot of that is probably down to a lack of formal discipline. Much has been made of the single, unbroken shot that constitutes the vast majority of Birdman, which so far has been most commonly read as the heightened stream of consciousness of a man losing his mind. But if there is one unifying trait here, it isn’t internal subjectivity, but aggressive omniscience: Iñárritu’s camera seems to see every important moment of every character’s life in this theater house, eliding the passage of days with an elliptical pan, then showing a character’s hallucinations, then showing an intimate dialogue between Riggan and his girlfriend in a fairly objective mode, then snaking away from Riggan to an adulterous interlude, then to another adulterous interlude, then — well, it certainly makes its point about fidelity in the theater world.

The point is that the camera does and sees whatever it damn well wants to, and on one hand it’s a thrill to see a master innovator like Emmanuel Lubezki go so hog-wild as only he conceivably could. On the other, all this constant creative exuberance tends to stuff the running time a hell of a lot fuller than it could or should be. There’s not much of a formal arc to the cinematography’s craziness — it peaks with an astonishing movement through Times Square long before the film is due to climax — and that can often make the proceedings more hysterical than moving. But still, we’re talking about Lubezki here, and that means there are few images in Birdman that don’t carry emotional import, that don’t dazzle with their technical and expressive bravura, that aren’t throwing in new flourishes, even if it can get a little unsurprising in its surprisingness.

At least the film is of a piece in its messiness; the script runs through big, dramatic beats with characters far too often and too early, often robbing otherwise-good performances of the sense of development and discovery. It has an unfortunate habit of revealing someone’s foibles and redeeming them well before the halfway mark, and then topping those logical culminations with increasingly contrived interpersonal complications (usually adultery). There's more than enough material here to fill a very dense movie (much, much more), but for all the density, the histrionics lay so much bare so soon that the movie is front-loaded, and little resounds at the end.

Yes, this is overload with abandon, a movie jammed so tight with extremity and self-conscious stylization that it squeezes out much of whatever points Iñárritu was trying to make. Despite this — despite a schizophrenic mix of classic orchestral music and a jazz drumming score, despite its failure to deliver on its themes, despite an ending that is not really earned and comes off more glib than ambiguous — it’s hard to fault Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) for bringing too much to the table when so many of its parts are so good, even if it doesn’t make for a proper meal.


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