There’s one truly revelatory sequence in Birdman, and you’ve seen it in the trailer: Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a has-been Hollywood star mounting a Broadway play as his comeback vehicle, is visited on the street by the film’s costumed title character, a superhero Riggan once played and now hears and sees in hallucinations. Like Gollum as employed by, say, Marvel Studios, Birdman feeds his portrayer lines about how viewers just want action and destruction, not arty stuff like “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the Raymond Carver short story that Riggan is adapting, directing, and starring in on stage. In a few invigorating moments, Birdman illustrates his point, causing explosions, helicopters, and a giant avian robot to materialize, in a spectacle that, per the film’s ambiguous magical realism, hundreds of screaming New Yorkers may or may not actually be seeing. On the most visceral level, this scene is a simple depiction of how bracingly impactful special effects can be when used sparingly, as opposed to being a movie’s primary draw. But more importantly, it’s the one moment that viewers are allowed to feel for themselves the Hollywood skewering that Birdman constantly spoon-feeds like strained bananas.
Taking his first crack at a comedic project, director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu has filled his plate with ideas, but his core structure involves the use of Broadway as an art-versus-entertainment arena—a setting for creative conflicts both internal and external—where multiplex names like Riggan are arguably polluting the waters of an insular, age-old club. But even in scenes where this redundant and unoriginal concept is most engagingly articulated, such as when Riggan and his volatile legend of a co-lead, Mike (Edward Norton), discuss how “popularity is the slutty cousin of prestige,” and encounter a critic (Lindsay Duncan) who loathes Riggan for stepping foot near a stage, there’s no room for interpretation and no novel insights to be found. González Iñárritu has largely placed regurgitated ideas into the mouths of gifted actors, then dropped them amid a kooky story that plays like an elaborate distraction from what little Birdman actually has to say.
There’s a real pity in that, because, as a film about the inner workings of theater life, Birdman is genuinely fascinating. Though overly littered with gonzo antics, the pressures among the cast and crew in the lead-up to opening night are palpable, and the world itself is visually captured in ways at once inviting, enveloping, and claustrophobic. Collaborating with the great Emmanuel Lubezki, González Iñárritu shoots the theater’s cavernous backstage halls like a restless paparazzo, in long, snaking, and desperately curious takes that give the environment a strange and fluid immediacy. The extraordinary cast seems to lend every ounce of their talents to the uninspired script by González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo, and it’s especially great to see Naomi Watts back in top, Mulholland Drive-era form, again playing a semi-green actress who’s acting with all her might.
But no one—not Emma Stone or Duncan as riveting voices of reason, or Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s on-set girlfriend—can give Birdman the nuanced wit or dramatic resonance it lacks. Even Keaton, whose performance (and performance within a performance) is at times gorgeously organic (a bit in which Riggan feigns a childhood trauma feels like improv with a sick, serrated edge), winds up ill-served by the project. Just as the meta nature of the resurging, ex-Batman star’s casting is amusing for all of two minutes, González Iñárritu’s attempts at satire feel like stones that skip across a water surface but don’t sink. For his first foray into non-miserablism, the director of Amores Perros and Babel has opted to lavishly wrestle with his own ego, an exercise that’s less a self-examination than a testosterone-propelled jog on a hamster’s wheel. The film’s zeitgeist-y, satirical failures notwithstanding (references to real-life stars, the receptions of art, and the power of social media are all pancake-flat), González Iñárritu has, in a matter of speaking, made All That Jazz without the jazz—a self-reflective work about a self-deluded impresario that doesn’t have the empathy or uniqueness of character to feel like a fleshed-out portrait.
Moreover, the filmmaker’s brand of comedy is often curiously puerile and borderline misogynistic. If it’s not a shallow dig at some branch of the media biz, virtually every gag comes in the form of a dick joke, a swipe at a female, or potty humor. The introduction of Mike, a self-professed cad who’s impotent save the time he gets a visible hard-on on stage, involves a remark about Sam’s ass that would come off as desperate even if its only purpose were to make Mike look like a prick (it is rather, of course, the first step toward the pair’s inevitable tryst). And the rare bond between actresses Lesley (Watts) and Laura (Riseborough), who share a kind of self-flagellating solidarity, is intriguing until their dressing room powwow leads to a lesbian kiss, which has no follow through and seems to merely exist for voyeurism and giggles. Nearly all of these supposedly funny moments double as agents of derailment. Despite the weakness of Birdman’s screenplay, there are multiple monologues that keep you in rapt attention, such as Keaton’s fourth-wall-breaking recitations of Carver’s work, or Duncan’s icy delivery of her character’s disdain for the Hollywood system. But, as if secretly knowing the material can’t hold itself up, González Iñárritu incessantly caps off his drama with codas of boyish wisecrackery. That’s not comic relief; that’s stage fright.