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Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has a reputation for being a dour filmmaker. His films 21 Grams, Biutiful, and Babel were increasingly rejected by critics and audiences as maudlin and manipulative, mechanically wringing the same threads of sorrow and sadness from contrived situations. Birdman (subtitled "Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance") is meant to be a departure from those films, a darkly comedic skewering of ego and ambition. It is, picking on each of the cast and crew's insecurities and neuroses with a certain comic ruthlessness, but it's also a thundering bore, a film that pits empty people against empty people and then expects the viewer to laugh that the results come up empty. As a purely technical exercise, there are things to admire, and there are moments of interest peppered throughout (most provided by Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan's daughter and recovering drug addict), but they're too few and far between to be the wind beneath Birdman's wings.
The core conflict in the movie has to do with Riggan's insecurity about his grand artistic gesture. He knows that his first choice was wrong for the part, but Mike's presence on the set is simultaneously encouraging and depressing. He's already off-book the moment he steps on stage, and although the scene Riggan reads through with him now has the spark it didn't have before, Mike's edited some of the dialogue (making it better) while also suggesting there's not much to it. He's is an impossibly frustrating blend of Method actor and psychiatrist, mocking Riggan's reasons for trying to direct while also desperately, presumptuously trying to goose authenticity into the performances with real alcohol, real fights, a real erection. In one scene, Riggan reveals his reasons for doing the play, and Mike dismisses them as cruelly as possible. Riggan knows that it's impossible to fire him without destroying any chance he has at a hit play, but Mike is all too aware of Riggan's pressure points.
Unfortunately, the character of Mike, and most of the tension in Birdman, is nothing more than two opposing live wires, pointed permanently at each other in order to generate sparks. Is it supposed to humanize him when he reveals to Sam that he knows he's obnoxious and just can't help it? He and Sam speak on the roof of the venue two times during the movie, and the first time, she makes a move on him which he rejects, hinting at some sense of self-control. Then, in the next meeting, he changes his mind, negating the nuance in his personality. Inarritu and co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo repeatedly explain and present these contrasts to the audience, with all the subtlety of a man in a giant bird costume. One controversial scene finds Riggan presenting his reasoning to a venomous New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan), before launching into a speech about how critics are the worst type of scum. Some critics have been accused (and many will be suspected) of disliking the scene thanks to its acidic appraisal of their profession, but the real reason it's awful is because both parties are right. When the critic explains the emptiness and narcissism of Riggan's endeavor and jabs at the heart of his own self-pity from her lonely barstool and claims she's gonna rip him to shreds without even seeing his play, both characters have their arguments validated, a stalemate in a game of who can be more insufferable.
Inarritu films Birdman as if the movie was captured in a single floating take, although the film's events are spread out over the week leading up to the play's opening. It's impressive how obvious the passage of time is without any title cards, and the device does serve to emphasize the whirlwind of decision-making and insecurity that Riggan feels, but that's the limit of its thematic relevance. The same goes for a repeated device where Riggan envisions his actions through the lens of superpowers, as if he is Birdman. Inarritu can't let these flourishes just be, instead, he feels the need to punctuate a scene of Riggan flying back to the playhouse after a night of drinking with a scene of a cab pulling up at the same moment Riggan lands, and the driver running into the building yelling about an unpaid fare. The one moment where he relents is the one that deserves insight: the film builds to a moment that could actually be called satire, but it feels uninspired and empty, and the flight of fancy the film ends with is inexplicable. The cast gives strong performances (Stone, again, is the stand-out, offering a raw, real vulnerability the other characters lack), but Norton mostly lobs softballs at his own self-image, and Keaton doesn't do much but add a bit of poison to his usual manic comic style (not a knock, he's always been reliable, but he doesn't reveal hidden depths). It's fine to make a picture about the fine line between ego and artistry, and it doesn't have to include anyone to "root for," but Birdman refuses to offer any perspective on these characters. Perhaps the "unexpected virtue of ignorance" is not getting to know them in the first place.
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