Exactly one half of Birdman (or the Unnecessary Pretentiousness of Subtitling) is incredible. The one-shot illusion, most notoriously used to disorientating effect in Gasper Noe’s ghastly Irreversible, creates the theatre’s backstage as a lived-in environment, its erratic and explosive characters bouncing off one another as the camera segues from one deranged event to the next. For a while, this works. It helps to craft a space in which almost anything can happen, calling to mind the craziest moments of the New Hollywood era, most notably Mean Streets or the chaotic cinema of Robert Altman. And while Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) gradually sends himself insane by trying to keep his Broadway show from becoming an unmitigated disaster, the spontaneity helps the movie build to the kind of climax that opens up like a fault line beneath its blindly unsuspecting characters.
Except it doesn’t do that at all. Instead of making a great character study, or even just a great story, Alejandro González Iñárritu twists Birdman into a witless, unilateral assault against big-screen filmmaking, the press, and social media. In his head, Riggan hears the voice of the Birdman character that made him famous – and destructively typecast – over two decades ago; the character eventually becomes visually manifest, as do the massive explosions described by Birdman to be exactly what the public want. At this moment, the movie loses its grip on the cleverness of its first half, and descends into a bluntly sarcastic tirade against just about anything popular.
This was the problem I had with last year’s Snowpiercer, another movie that was excellent until its main antagonist orated the film’s overarching themes which, until then, were put forward with an almost-subtle brand of invective. Birdman is a lot worse for it, though. My gripe here is not that González’ message is delivered in the most ham-fisted way imaginable (although it certainly is), but rather that it does so with a tone of outright condescension. Birdman is an incredible technical achievement by those behind and in front of the camera – and it’s undoubtedly worth seeing just for that – but when your film boasts filmmaking and star performances that are knowingly virtuosic while bitterly attacking the lowbrow aspects of modern culture, you yourself take the arrogant stance of “This… this is how you make a movie. This is what art looks like. I am better than you.”
Nevertheless, I’m unable to call Birdman a bad movie, so I’ll call it a very good movie that suffers from too many misfires. It is riotously funny in places, and it’s ragingly crazy for such a high-profile movie. And despite the heavy-handedness with which it addresses its main themes, several of its earlier dark moments succeed because of their sledgehammer delivery. Let’s also not forget the cast, who fare incredibly well as the takes stretch out into nigh-on oblivion. However much the movie’s mindless ranting irritated me (which was an awful lot), it’s an undeniably unique experience, so seek it out at some point if you can stand being slapped upside the head for two hours.
(Originally posted at Man Bites Frog, my other film site.)