It’s a shame that after months of general release, it’s rather difficult to go into a screening of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) cold. Birdman, which is neck-and-neck with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as the frontrunner to win the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday night, is the story of Riggan Thomson (a wonderful Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who made his name in a ’90s superhero franchise. He’s searching for artistic redemption by staging his own show on Broadway: an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s classic short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” If you — unlike myself — were lucky enough to see Birdman without knowing much about it, I’m sure that there was an initial spark of magic as you realized that it’s a “one take” movie, with a constantly roving, circling camera that keeps the audience mostly rooted in Riggan’s point of view.
Yet for all the bombast, the whirl of the camera, the excitement about what it’s like to put on a Broadway show in New York City, Birdman has been an enervating, aggravating, and empty experience for some viewers. I would chalk this up to the gaping hole in the center of the film: at the end of the day, it’s not a well-written script. (And four writers are on the credits for it.) It is the story of a lion in winter, an actor at the end, and Riggan Thomson — despite the weight that Keaton brings to the role — isn’t very compelling.
He’s just a schmo surrounded by vacuous, one-note characters, who express frustration through the occasional bit of speechifying in his face. Take Emma Stone’s character, Sam, Riggan’s daughter who’s fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant. She yells at him because he’s not important, because he’s not “doing the work” to be relevant these days on social media and otherwise: “It’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist!” Perhaps she’s puncturing his artistic ego, but in that scene, Stone’s lemur face is shot in a way that creates the look of a fish-eye lens, rendering her as a mere grotesquerie.
There’s no tension between what Riggan wants — artistic redemption, perhaps? A reason to say that he mattered in the world? — and the world that Iñárritu puts on screen, which is vacant. It’s a collection of one-dimensional women who are there for reasons of either family or sexuality, and men who have one feeling to play (save for Edward Norton’s narcissistic actor). Critics and journalists are one-dimensional villains, looking to get the dumbest possible pull-quote or to bury plays with a flick of their pen.
Perhaps that’s satire, but there’s no love in this satire, save the love for Riggan firing up the plot. He is every actor, torn between commerce and art, monomaniacally trying to matter after a life at the circus. But well-constructed satire pops when it has something to pivot against — a love of people, of the world, of the possible redemption that we can find when art shows us something like the human condition. When Birdman takes flight into some magical realism towards the end of the film, it almost reaches somewhere transcendent — but at the end of an ugly, interminable hour-and-a-half inside an uninteresting man’s boring head, it’s not enough to make the film anything close to great.
If Birdman were a film that engaged with how the world worked, how the cinema got swallowed by superheroes, how social media has become its own tidal wave and monolith that artists are expected to deal with, it could be interesting. You have to engage with stuff to write passionate screeds against its innate stupidity, and Birdman goes for the cheap seats every time (particularly regarding critics), sounding mostly like an old man yelling at clouds. “Twitter is stupid” is not a good joke. A joke with layers, looking into the absurdism of why people use Twitter, would be richer and make for a better punchline. It’s why Norton’s performance is so lively, such a revelation — in some ways, it feels like he’s parodying his own status as a genius, pain-in-the-ass young Turk, and the combination of arrogance and preening insecurity makes for riveting viewing. He’s also the only source of genuine mirth in the film, when you come down to it.
Birdman feels like a film that’s made for people who think art may be endangered and a mug’s game, that critics are just aspiring artists who never made it, that a sweeping one-camera POV tracking shot carries weight and meaning with it and isn’t anything like a party trick. But if you compare Birdman‘s camera to the tension that comes from single shots in sources from True Detective to Children of Men, Birdman comes up wanting and flabby. It’s a technical marvel, but that combination of one long take and a lot of free jazz (coming from a clever-enough source) loses its intensity thanks to the film’s shallow writing. You need wonder in the world to achieve true moments of wonder in art, and much of Birdman feels like a cranky, out-of-touch older guy telling me about the way things used to be and how everything sucks now. In an era where this year’s Academy Awards nominees are a strange collection of idiosyncratic stories about men, of course this film is a frontrunner. But I’m fairly sure that we won’t remember it in a year.