Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is about a washed up actor named Riggan Thomson who is trying to write, direct and star in a Broadway play in an effort to gain the legitimacy that his career has lacked ever since he was cast as a superhero named Birdman two decades ago. To get the play off the ground Riggan has to juggle his ex-wife, his surly daughter, a temperamental lead actor, and even his own mental health. He is hallucinating, doubting himself, and trying to keep the pressure from showing on his face whenever he has to be a leader to his cast and crew. Riggan is meant to be a stand-in for artists in general, who are regularly caught between lofty ambitions and practical realities, and who will never quite be able to fully assure themselves that their dreams are legitimate and not pretentious.
That description should make it clear that Birdman has a lot on its plate: sometimes it is a Hollywood satire, sometimes it's a drama about failed dreams and middle age, sometimes it is an abusrdist folly about a cracked-up actor who thinks he can move objects with his mind. The only thing that really tiesits many disparate tones together is its presentation, which tries to sew together all of the different types of scenes as if they were part of one continuous take. You can’t deny that this is an ambitious movie or that it took a lot of technical skill to juggle all those goals at once, but unfortunately there is a real difference between something that's impressive and something that's satisfying - and Birdman is far more impressive than it is satisfying.
There are a lot of ways in which Birdman seemed abrasive to me, but I want to focus on the worst offender: the all-in-one-take conceit. I can understand why some would admire the camera work, which had to be intricately choreographed to hit all the right marks at the right times, but it’s far too showy for my taste. Birdman’s incessant need to guide your eyes towards specific sights makes the whole thing feel a lot more artificial than it needs to be; it’s far too blatant about redirecting our eyes to what it wants us to see and that makes it feel manipulative. I’ve never been able to get fully immersed in a movie that calls so much attention to itself, and that certainly happened here. Instead of engaging with the story I kept getting distracted trying to pinpoint the places where they secretly hid cuts – in other words, I was obsessing over the sort of details that are completely immaterial to the story’s text and subtext.
You could argue that such an excessively ambitious narrative should be executed with a similarly ambitious visual style, but I would actually say the opposite. If Birdman’s story had been less intricate its visual style would have spiced up the movie; if the film’s presentation had been more subtle it’s incredibly meta story would have been easier to digest. However, doing both at once is overkill, like painting a giant mural of wizards on the hood of a Porsche. The script’s mixture of seriousness, slapstick and absurdism makes sense to me because I think life is simultaneously composed of all of those seemingly contradictory elements, but every time the film’s blatant grandstanding becomes too intrusive to ignore it undermines the story’s inherent resonance. After all, life might be a single unbroken line of contradictory emotions, but when was the last time you stared down a hallway for a bit too long just to preserve the illusion of continuity?
Really, everything you need to know about the movie is in the title, where there's a simple clean name (Birdman) immediately followed by something clunky (or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.)) This a film that gives and it takes away. Yes, Edward Norton is really captivating as the mercurial lead actor who is either a pompous ass or a genius or both, and there’s a lot of nuance in the way he juggles his character’s mercurial moods. But at the same time, this is a movie whose symbolism is so heavy handed that at one point a homeless man recites Shakespeare's speech about how the sound and the fury might signify nothing while Riggan is on the verge of throwing in the towel on his acting career.
I think that in many ways Birdman was aiming to be compared to something like Being John Malkovich, which is another sad/silly/deep/weird movie, but when I left the theater I wasn’t comparing it to anything with deep existential underpinnings. No, I was mostly thinking about heavy metal music. I understand that a lot of the chords in metal songs are complex and difficult to play, and I understand that it takes a lot of skill to play that fast, but I don't have the musical knowledge to hear how virtuosic it is. To me, it's just fast and loud and repetitive, and it all blurs together into one big mush of too-loud-too-fast-too-much. In an abstract sense, Birdman is the same way. It's a feat of pure cinema for sure, full of master craftsmen giving it their all. But I can't see myself going back to revisit it, because it blurred together into a big mush of too-loud-too-fast-too-much for me. Honestly, I'll probably be much happier re-experiencing something less virtuosic, something a bit simpler, something that I can hum along to a lot easier.