A birdman of razzmatazz that fails to connect

In Birdman, the latest work from Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Inarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), a voice in the head of former Hollywood sensation Riggan Thomsen (Keaton) frequently torments him, routinely exploiting his insecurities. The voice belongs to Birdman – an immensely popular comic book character that Thomsen laid to rest after a third film 20 years ago. However, the Birdman alter-ego haunts him incessantly, insisting he return to their greatest role. He’ll build Thomsen up with promises like “Gravity doesn’t apply to you,” before breaking him down again: “… you’re just the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question!”

As unique as Buster

Clearly Thomsen’s life since ‘Birdman 3’ hasn’t gone to plan, and so he finds himself adapting, directing and starring in a Raymond Carver story on Broadway in a last-ditch attempt at artistic credibility. With a pregnant girlfriend, Broadway’s top critic (Duncan) sharpening her pen, prima-donna Mike Shiner (Norton) making a last-minute addition to the cast, his daughter (Stone) fresh out of rehab and Birdman all pecking away at his self-confidence, he’s got his work cut out for him.

Of course, having starred as Batman in Tim Burton’s films, Keaton is, ostensibly, more than qualified for Birdman. He remains a compelling screen presence and, if nothing else, this return to centre stage should make you realise how much you’ve missed him. With luck, his Golden Globe win and Birdman’s nine Oscar nods should secure him roles that further showcase his innate comic timing and unique brand of electricity. 

Where egos wear and tear

The film meditates on ego and self-obsession, themes that have unsurprisingly resonated strongly with the Academy – but that’s a narrow demographic. There are moments of insight into the anxiety of performers who put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves while willingly surrendering to a system that renders them powerless (Norton’s character is literally impotent – capable of an erection only before an audience). Their fates are decided by producers, directors, critics, audiences. Here, Thomsen is trying to redress the balance.

There’s an argument made for the necessity of self aggrandisement – going so far as to deem such self-deception as critical to survival within a culture that fosters an overwhelming sense of helplessness. It also posits an over-inflated ego as futile when it only exacerbates the inevitable come-down – especially from an Icarus-like rise such as Thomsen’s. What goes up, must come down (much like Norton’s erection). 

Ultimately fails to connect 

Innaritu’s failure is that although much of his intention can be read, very little of it actually connects with us. Birdman isn’t boring, but Innaritu is looking to impact you deeper than that. At times the film bears a passing resemblance to the superior Synechdoche, New York, but while its protagonist is an artist, Riggan Thomsen comes off more like an ego. While we may understand Thomsen, we’re reluctant to identify with him – Birdman is like Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine, Adaptation) held at arm’s length, with fewer smarts and a fraction of the feels. 

Broken into its composite parts, there’s a promising concept, a handful of amusing scenes, woolly attempts at emotional substance and an impressive technical achievement (albeit a tired one): the entire film is made to appear like one continuous shot. Yet these elements sag together in a way that signals Birdman is unlikely to nest in anyone’s head or heart – for long.

Dir: Alejandro Inarritu, US drama/comedy, 2014, 119 mins; Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Lindsay Duncan
Premiered January 22
Playing Nationwide