This isn’t quite on the same level of fantasy-reality renaissance that The Wrestler was for Mickey Rourke, and it doesn’t reach the artistic and emotional heights of that film, but it certainly gives Michael Keaton the material and platform to give the best (if critical acclaim is the barometer) performance of his jittery career. Like The Wrestler, this story can be interpreted as a allegory for Keaton himself as we delve into the temperaments and existential crisis of actor Riggan Thomas.
Feeling defined and haunted by the commercial franchise ‘Birdman’ he starred in decades earlier, Thomas pours his entire worth and heart into the Broadway staging of a literary adaptation to prove this wrong, moreso to himself than anyone else. Hung around this are pressing challenges of relationship troubles with a co-star (Andrea Riseborough), a reckless and distant daughter (Emma Stone) suffering from fatherly neglect, threat of lawsuit, a rightly uptight producer (Zach Galifanakis), failed marriage (Amy Ryan) and a battle of creative control with the arrogant leading man (Ed Norton). Let’s here just add the this exceptional cast also includes Naomi Watts, Merritt Weaver and Lindsay Duncan. You won’t see a more appealing and dependable collection of performers compiled on your screens in 2015.
Birdman is equally a probing satire on the troubles facing failing artists and the acting industry on a whole, where you and the world struggle to disassociate performers from the characters they portray and so easily succumb to inhabiting their identity and the bubble of fame that they bring. Like last years Inside Llewyn Davis which also tackled the psyche of the failing artist, needless self-destruction becomes the usurping identity for Thomas as he literally shoots off his nose (to spite his face). These themes are all well established and effectively humourous amongst the bleak existentialism and despair characteristic of Iñárritu, but its ability to connect and penetrate becomes muddied in the second half. Characters, motivations, relationships and story arcs are underdeveloped and incomplete as the pathos loses coherence jugging the interlinking stories. It’s like a dark farce where the manufactured action never ceases and builds up to the ironic climax of opening night.
The ever-present continual long take gimmick, an idea that Iñárritu constructed the film around, deserves praise for its ambition and deft execution technically and creatively. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki remains one of the finest in the business following the likes of Gravity, Children of Men, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, A Little Princess and Sleepy Hollow. It works wonderfully at times, gracefully tracking our ensemble cast as if an ethereal presence and making the clearly meticulously rehearsed sequences look so fantastically fluid. While it energises the film in parts, it becomes numbing and essentially feels like an exercise in cinematic narcissism.
Contradicting the experience of Lindsay Duncan’s vengeful theatre critic Tabitha Dickson, Birdman doesn’t offer the unexpected virtue of ignorance. It suffers from bloated critical acclaim which makes ignorance prior to viewing impossible for any cinephile. Keaton does stupendously soar in his performance, and rise from the ashes, and all the bird metaphors you like, but the film has its wings clipped and never manages to take flight. Like a penguin, or a mallard, or something.