Alejandro González Iñárritu hasn’t directed a feature film since 2010’s Biutiful, an agonizing, overworked downer made bearable by Javier Bardem’s mournful performance. His latest, Birdman, also rests squarely on the shoulders of one put-upon fellow, but this one has a different set of problems: Actor-writer-director Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton) is struggling to open a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s got all the normal problems — needy actors, budgetary concerns — as well as an alter ego that speaks to him in the form of Birdman, the superhero character with which he made his name (as Keaton himself did with Batman) years ago.
Foul-mouthed and hateful, Birdman is that voice in your ear that tells you you’re a failure, a fraud, washed-up, worn-out, worthless — that this arty stuff isn’t what anyone cares about. (It’s not exactly Black Swan, though some of the feathers seem familiar.) But the false dichotomy of art versus entertainment is just a distraction, a spare idea the film tosses in and then leaves alone. The only conflict it’s really interested in is one man versus himself: the part that soars and the part that’s always looking down, aware how far there is to fall.
There are, woven into the overstuffed Birdman, interesting ideas like this one, hints of deeper characters (if only Emma Stone got to stay as angry as she is in her first scene!) and a less gimmicky tale of self-doubt. But Iñárritu has made, unexpectedly, a flash-and-dazzle art-house film, a mashup of technical beauty and half-baked clichés that never gets to the level of feeling it needs to evoke in order to gel. His cleverness is held together by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, which, via seamless editing, creates the illusion of a (nearly) endless take.
The camera slides down hallways and through windows, pans up to the sky and down again to the next day, finds impossible space in cramped dressing rooms. Narrow corridors and magical camera movements, combined with a jittery, percussive score, go a long way toward creating a claustrophobic tension — but also make you aware that the tension is manufactured. The characters are sketches; the movie feints limply at satire; Riggin’s insistence that he’s risking everything feels forced, his self-centeredness a drum he can’t stop beating. Why is his self-doubt more relevant than anyone else’s? If Iñárritu’s Biutiful couldn’t let up with the ugly horrors of life, this one can’t pause to inject some actual humanity into the neuroses of the artist.