How will I be remembered? This question lies at the heart of Birdman and consumes its main character, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who funds and stars in a stage play as a monument to himself in the hope that it will provide the forgotten actor some form of immortality.
Alejandro Iñárritu evokes the feeling of a living, breathing stage production with an audacious attempt to convey proceedings in one uninterrupted take (it is an enjoyable game, actually, trying to pin-point where each cut might be taking place). The camera glides and twirls on stage, in dressing rooms, in crowded streets, through time itself. It is quite spectacular.
Birdman features an ensemble cast that are universally strong. Keaton has received most of the plaudits and it’s true, he puts in a poignant turn no doubt aided by the already much observed life-meets-art meta qualities that came with his casting.
But Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter (Sam) comes of age with I believe the strongest performance in the entire film and of her career. Edward Norton clearly had a lot of fun with his role as the embodiment of high art: a man totally committed to the craft who seems tireless in his pursuit of truth on stage but is empty and false off it. Everybody else plays their parts well with no noticeable weak link.
The resounding success of the actual performances is even more impressive considering the script they all read from is at times absolutely awful. Keaton, especially, tries his best to bellow his lines through gnashing teeth but seeing Riggan bemoan a younger generation with their Twitter, Facebook and social media and ‘whose only ambition is to go viral’ is cringe inducing.
The script issues culminate with the character of the theatre critic, Tabitha. Iñárritu creates an individual in which Riggan (read: Iñárritu) can artificially position himself against. She is everything an overblown caricature of a nasty stage critic should be: vindictive, mean-spirited, a sour, unlikable face. She is even ethically corrupt, stating her intentions to destroy Riggan’s play before she has seen it. The role may as well have been given to an inanimate figure made of literal straw, so unsubtle and unrefined an attack on the snooty critic and the critic-artist relationship it ends up becoming.
That is Birdman, all things considered. When it gets it right it soars but when it doesn’t it tumbles and crashes unceremoniously. What we’re left with is a largely enjoyable technical marvel that may have been something special if Iñárritu had put as much effort into the themes Birdman explores as the mechanics propelling it from scene-to-scene with such seamless elegance. (6)