At one point in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fluidic and freewheeling latest a character points out to Michael Keaton’s actor-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown that he “confuses love for admiration”.
It’s a charge that can be levelled at Birdman; a whirlwind of industrial wizardry and an actor’s dream that’s very easy to admire, but more difficult to love.
It will be fascinating to see how Birdman is regarded in five or 10 years time. Iñárritu has a habit of making films that profess to profundity at the time of release, but come to be dismissed as the river of time flows; his English-language debut 21 Grams (2003) and its emperor’s new clothes follow-up Babel (2006) in particular.
One suspects his latest will weather more favourably, if for no other reason than the career-defining central performance by Keaton, an actor whose scarcity in front of the camera is all-the-more tragic in light of his turn as the calamitous and anxiety-ridden Riggan Thomson.
Thomson has ploughed his finances and fragile soul into staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story in the hope of injecting new life into a flagging career defined by playing the superhero Birdman in a series of big budget movies.
His troupe of actors includes the deeply insecure Lesley (Naomi Watts) and the revered, but unpredictable Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), while backstage his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tries to keep the production afloat and he struggles to connect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone). With opening night fast approaching, the cracks in Riggan’s splintered psyche start to widen and the voice of Birdman in his head manifests itself in his everyday life.
Keaton has spoken in interviews of the huge technical demands placed on the cast to ensure they hit their marks so as not to spoil one of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lengthy shots, which have been masterfully stitched together to give the impression of a single, unbroken take.
As a technical feat, it’s second-to-none and Lubezki deserves his plaudits for a job very well done. However, the many tricks Birdman has up its sleeves end up getting in the way of the film itself and become a distraction from the character-led comedy drama going on in spite of everything else. Similar accusations have been levelled on Wes Anderson’s work, which has often divided critics and filmgoers alike.
The film has some interesting things to say about what constitutes art in the social media age and cheekily gives Thomson the final word when confronted by an embittered theatre critic (played by Lindsay Duncan) who promises to wield the Sword of Damocles on the play because she hates what he stands for.
By focusing so tightly on the emotionally fractured Thomson, Iñárritu asks us to question what is and isn’t real, right until the film’s final shot. Meanwhile, the presence of Birdman is akin to a winged devil on his shoulder whom Thomson must confront if he is to salvage his imploding soul.
Bottled up within the claustrophobic confines of the theatre for the most part, the wild ride the camera takes is matched by Antonio Sánchez’s jittery jazz drum score, which rattles around in the head, but doesn’t distract as much as some critics have suggested.
Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped.