(Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, 2014)
I liked almost every element of Birdman.
The big gimmick of the film - that it's been made to seem as if it has been shot in one long continuous take - starts off exhausting and nerve-wracking, but as the rhythm of the movie is established and stabilises, it works, becoming spontaneous, and jazzy; even witty in places. It is also crucially stunningly beautiful in places. Emmanuel Lubezki is a genius, and he takes full advantage of all of the surreal sights backstage at a theatre.
That world is vividly captured in all its shabbiness and glamour - this is a sensitively textured film, and that texture is a big part of the film's appeal.
The story is a simple one, but it succeeds in creating tension: A fading movie star named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) famous for his role as a winged super-hero in the Birdman movies, struggles with his cast, his emotions, his ex-wife and daughter, his critics and his own expectations and issues as he approaches the opening night of the Raymond Carver adaptation he has written, directed and stars in. As that opening approaches and Riggan falls apart, the tension rises, as does the comedy. This is basically a satire of the showbiz world, full of caricatures (the pretentious method actor, the bitter critic, the desperate ageing Leading Lady) and broad moments, but some of it is hilarious.
The cast do a better job with those caricatures than anybody could have expected. Keaton has always been an underrated actor, but here he makes Riggan a haunted man, torn between his ego and his needs, his moods swinging wildly. He seems without vanity here. Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a pompous New York stage actor, who is most himself playing somebody else, and he makes him relatable and human and oddly affecting. He is also hilarious and hugely annoying. Emma Stone is Riggan's daughter, fresh from rehab and angry at her father and the world, and she makes a cliche of a part moving and fascinating, and her scenes with Norton may be the best in the film. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are the two actresses in the play, struggling with their leading men and their insecurities, and they both do quite a lot with not very much.
The score, improvised on drums by Antonio Sanchez, is perfect for the scattered nervous energy Inarittu is trying to create, and gels well with the photography.
So: I liked all of that. I'm just not sure it all adds up to much at all. It is a dense, intoxicating cinematic experience, but it doesn't provoke much beyond admiration at the technical feat of its making and the acting. It is saying something about the nature of creativity and what makes each of us special, but it says that in 5 minutes. Much of the rest of the time it is saying embarrassing things about pop culture (Superhero movies are BAD!!) and social networking (Twitter is RIDICULOUS!!), while those caricatured characters inevitably lead to more than a few caricatured plot eventualities.
Inarittu's big statement (and yes, he always has one) seems to be revealed in the final scene, when Riggan's powers (previously assumed to be either a magic realist flourish or confined to his imagination) appear to be real. Is he saying that we all have such magic inside us, but that the world means that we focus on other, less important qualities? Or is that final shot just his daughter moving into his fragile headspace?
It is all a bit vague, a bit studiedly ambiguous. Which feels like a bit of a cop-out.