A couple of years ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu might well have been thought of as the director least likely to produce a comedy. The Mexican auteur famed for such deadly-serious misery fests as 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful has seen his critical reputation decline with each film released since his breakthrough Amores perros in 2000, so maybe a change of pace could be a good idea.
While nowhere near as bleak as his earlier works, I would still be hard-pressed to describe Birdman as a comedy, there are certainly a number of humorous moments, both obvious and darkly satirical, but in general this is a film that takes itself extremely seriously and pertains to explore plenty of big, important themes.
It does have one thing in common with a prior Iñárritu film in that it attempts to take a bold new approach to filmic storytelling. Iñárritu’s sophomore effort 21 Grams decided to tell its interweaving plotlines in a starkly non-linear fashion, as if he gathered up each individual moment in the film, threw them in the air and played out the movie in the order they landed. At the time, I found this to be a very interesting approach, and while 21 Grams isn’t a film that readily invites re-watching, I still wonder whether it would have worked better, or even especially differently if it had been told in a straightforward manner. Was Iñárritu employing this tactic purely because it was something original and challenging, or did he sincerely believe that it would enhance the story?
Birdman begs the same question, though utilises a completely different cinematic technique. In this case, the whole film is presented as if it were one continuous shot. Now this is in itself nothing new, Hitchcock tried it back in 1948, but it’s never been done quite like Birdman before. What makes Birdman’s decision to utilise it especially interesting is that is isn’t set in real time, taking place over several days, and doesn’t make any attempt to pretend that it’s actually one shot, rather than a series of takes cleverly stitched together.
You have to admire the cinematography on display here though, Emmanuel Lubezki – an Oscar winner for his astonishing work in last year’s Gravity, keeps his camera constantly in motion, flowing up, down, around, inside, outside and more. It’s tough to imagine how much work went into making these shots appear seamless, and it’s initially quite fun noticing the moments when it must have transitioned to a new take. As a technical display of Lubezki’s camera skills, it’s undeniably impressive.
But I have to admit that after a while I began to forget about this gimmick. That could be credited to being swept up in the story, but I found myself reminded of the experience of watching Avatar in the cinema. I had never seen the level of 3D present in Avatar before and was initially wowed by it, but as the film went on I soon ceased to notice it much (though Birdman doesn’t give you the headache a 3-hour 3D movie will). It’s not’s distracting then, but it does all come back to the question of whether this commitment is actually improving the story Birdman is telling or not.
The aspect it most assists with is in communicating the hectic, claustrophobic environment of being backstage. Birdman revolves around Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor whose best days are behind him. Famous for portraying the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of films two decades prior, he’s attempting to mount an artistic comeback by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. He’s fraught with problems though, from a last-minute actor replacement, his troubled daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone) and a theatre critic intent on tearing his play to shreds (Lindsay Duncan).
The long takes prove to be challenging yet highly rewarding for the actors. Keaton hasn’t had a role this substantial for years, and he excels. There is the obvious meta-factor of Keaton playing this role, but it never feels like he playing some version of himself. For starters, I never thought Keaton was defined by the Tim Burton Batman movies; movie fans of my age probably associate him with Beetlejuice more than any of his other roles. I do wonder if the part was written specifically for him, but the film would likely work just as well with an actor without a superhero history.
He’s surrounded by a fine supporting cast, including Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough as fellow actors in the play, and a commendably against-type Zach Galifianakis as his producer. As his daughter Emma Stone gets one stand-out monologue, whose power is emphasised by being one of the few scenes when the camera remains largely static. The best performance though, comes from Edward Norton as an egocentric method actor. The humour of Birdman is mostly rooted in the trouble putting on the play is causing, a lot of which stems from Norton’s demands.
In contrast, Birdman also displays signs of the fantastical throughout. It opens with Keaton levitating while talking with the growly, unseen voice of his Birdman character. When at his most emotional, Keaton converses with Birdman and appears to display supernatural abilities, ranging from moving objects with his mind to full blown flight. The film presents these in a magical-realist way, but invites the audience to interpret whether they are merely taking place in Riggan’s mind (quite blatantly I think, no-one else is witness to them). This does culminate in what I feel was the best sequence in the film; an exterior when Birdman finally appears to Riggan, tempting him to just give in a make another Birdman movie, as this happens the events that might transpire in such a film appear around Riggan as he walks. It’s a bravura moment for sure, and the strongest example of Iñárritu’s imagination as a director.
Birdman opts to end on an ambiguous note that I personally found more frustrating than intriguing. I have little doubt that Iñárritu and his team of writers believe that they have an important story to tell, but am still left uncertain as to whether it was the one worthy of this amount of visual wizardry, or if deep down it’s just showing off. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s given me a lot to ponder, and there’s still plenty to Birdman to make it tremendously impressive as a technical feat of filmmaking.