There’s a long list of accusations one could level against Alejandro González Iñárritu, but an abuse of subtlety would not belong on it. Since his debut, Amores perros, the director has imbued his films with heightened emotional and visual intensity, erring, if anything, on the side of histrionics. In films such as Amores perros and Babel, though, Iñárritu’s tendency towards overstatement was guided by a fundamental humanism: even if the work was loud and blustering, it operated with a sincere interest in human beings that was hard to scorn. Iñárritu could go too far, sure, but he did so with good intentions.
Birdman, by contrast, boasts a bitter misanthropic streak that leaves behind the most captivating elements of the filmmaker’s early work. He certainly doesn’t go soft in his mid-career; the film finds him as sure as ever of his convictions. But unlike the earlier films, the convictions on display in Birdman are fueled by disdain and anger rather than empathy and understanding.
Even the film’s vitriol feels misplaced. In an interview with Deadline, Iñárritu rejects the “cultural genocide” of superhero movies, saying that they “mean nothing about the experience of being human.” Yet rather than turning his ire against the corporate financing or industry trends which keep these films coming, Iñárritu instead takes aim at the artists whose participation in blockbusters seems most forgivable.
The director/co-writer does so most notably through the protagonist, Riggan (Michael Keaton), an aging former star hoping to restore his tarnished legacy through a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Whatever artistic integrity Riggan may once have had gets destroyed through his performances in the Birdman films, a superhero franchise analogous to the Batman movies in which Keaton himself once starred. In spite of showing restraint and turning down Birdman 4, Riggan remains haunted by the ghost of his formal role, hearing his subconscious, embodied as Birdman, berate him about the inadequacy of his current work throughout the course of the movie.
This voice of self-doubt feels unspecific and unconvincing. Rather than providing insight into Riggan’s subconscious or psychology, the Birdman who stalks him seems no different from the insecurity that haunts all artists, as successful as they may be. The universality of the imagined Birdman could encourage empathy for Riggan, sure, but Iñárritu is too intent on having us laugh at the character to allow us to identify with him.
The feeling of derision is perhaps where Birdman feels the most miscalculate. From the very concept of playing Carver’s understated words at a Broadway fever pitch to Riggan’s hapless inability to communicate with the women in his life, the character becomes an object of mockery, impotent as both an artist and a human being. Iñárritu portrays Riggan as a perpetrator of the “cultural genocide” the director bemoans, blaming the character for films such as the fictional Birdman series and taking pleasure in the pain of his mid-life crisis. Beyond the questionable logic of Iñárritu’s choice of target (How much can we fault an actor happy just to work in Hollywood for turning down as much money as the role of Birdman must provide?), the viewer distance from the character Iñárritu’s self-righteousness engenders leads to unsatisfying drama.
Yet Birdman doesn’t give the characters around Riggan any fairer of a shake. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is a vitriolic and obvious parody of Millennial narcissism, telling her father that he doesn’t “exist” because of his lack of a Facebook page and using his hospitalization as an opportunity for a selfie that’ll be a surefire hit on Twitter. Mike (Edward Norton) is equally detestable, embodying the stereotypical egotism and insensitivity of successful actors. Theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) fares no better, a bitter critic taking out her anger on those who create and achieve more than her. Rather than shedding light on any of these characters, Iñárritu merely reiterates tired tropes. Riggan comes across as a no more appealing alternative, responding to their bland incitement of viewer disgust with outbursts equally alienating and unsympathetic.
Iñárritu’s method for capturing these interactions fails to highlight any virtues they may have. While impressive to watch, the simulated single take never transcends mere gimmickry, with the time lapse shots of days changing and other clear temporality shifts destroying the technique’s power. In these moments, any cut would’ve sufficed, laying bear the shallowness of the style and cheapening the value of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography (as impressive as ever).
Although Birdman misuses its single tracking shot, there’s no reason the technique couldn’t be more effective in a different film. Likewise, although Iñárritu isn’t wrong to be frustrated by the legions of superhero franchise movies, a lone actor doesn’t seem like the most sensible outlet for frustrations for which the film industry as a whole bears responsibility. The problem of Birdman isn’t its maximalism, but the direction in which it’s aimed.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.