Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is, “formally speaking, a repudiation of all of his other films,” asserts Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “While 21 Grams and Babel indulged in associative montage and facile cross cutting, Birdman is the digital era’s latest ode to André Bazin: It’s filmed so that the majority of it appears to unfold in a single take. You could easily make an M&M-jar-type game out of guessing the real number of shots. I counted 50, but cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, supplies so many swish pans and lighting and focal changes that it’s difficult to tell…. As a stunt, it’s less purist than the high-wire act of Russian Ark. But Birdman does use its sweeping camera movements to find a correlative to the immediacy of theater.”
Birdman “centers on the fevered exertions of Riggan Thomson, a fading movie star played by Michael Keaton (he made his fortune, like Keaton, in the role of a superhero), to prove himself on Broadway in a self-penned, self-directed adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,'” explains New York‘s David Edelstein. “The camera hurtles after Riggan from his dressing room to the stage (often he’s chased by his harried producer, played by Zach Galifianakis) and back to his dressing room, with glimpses on the way of, among others, a whiny actress (Naomi Watts), her hot-dog actor boyfriend (Edward Norton), and Riggan’s mouthy, fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone). In between his clashes with actors, Riggan is taunted by the voice of his old character, Birdman, who reminds him of his sorry state and how much more deserving he is than the rest of the wretched showbiz world…. How much different this movie would be if Riggan were visited by Beetlejuice—a reminder of what Keaton was once and could be again.”
“The script—by Inárittu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo—is targeted at both the small-mindedness of the Hollywood machine and the pomposity of movie stars who presume to think big in pursuit of high-art credibility,” writes Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot. “That this latter point might extend to stars of mega-budget studio garbage like The Incredible Hulk or The Amazing Spider-Man 2 who use art-house fare from lauded Mexican filmmakers to boost their credibility is an extratextual conundrum we’ll put aside for the moment: a self-critiquing Hollywood product will always try to have its cake and eat it too. The film allows everyone to be a little bit ridiculous and takes digs at an increasingly superficial mainstream American culture without ever being misanthropic or even particularly jaded. Birdman doesn’t want to destroy anything or anyone; it simply wants to reach some sort of détente between consumer culture and art cinema, like a more accessible, Yank version of Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep.”
“What it adds up to—a mental-health satire, a comment on the moviegoer’s eternally shrinking attention span, a farcical diorama of the New York theater world—is probably less than the sum of its parts, but goddamn if they’re not thrilling to behold,” writes Steve Macfarlane at the L.
“González Iñárritu has largely placed regurgitated ideas into the mouths of gifted actors, then dropped them amid a kooky story that plays like an elaborate distraction from what little Birdman actually has to say,” writes R. Kurt Osenlund at Slant. “There’s a real pity in that, because, as a film about the inner workings of theater life, Birdman is genuinely fascinating.”
“It’s a goof, not a self-important statement,” argues Matt Prigge at Metro, “and it’s most useful as a study of actors working with a cameraman as an ignored fellow castmate, doing a series of dances while tossing off jokes. Not all of the jokes are good; as usual it’s less insulting than depressingly unimaginative that there’s a joyless, vengeful critic (Lindsay Duncan) who exists to be told her kind aren’t as good as the artists they write about. But its lack of depth is its greatest asset. It might have been shallow and pompous if it weren’t actually charming and nutty.”
More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 4.5/5), Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), Jared Kershner (Credits), Anthony Lane (New Yorker), Tom Shone (Intelligent Life) and Martin Tsai (Critic’s Notebook). Earlier: Reviews from Venice.
Lane Brown reports on the film’s making for New York, while Melena Ryzik profiles Keaton for the New York Times. For the Wall Street Journal, Caryn James talks with Iñárritu, who, by the way, “has been shooting an entirely different kind of movie, The Revenant, with Leonardo DiCaprio as a 19th-century fur trapper. Tom Hardy co-stars.” In the Los Angeles Times, Steven Zeitchik interviews Iñárritu and Glenn Whipp talks with Keaton.
Updates, 10/15: For Time, Daniel D’Addario talks with González Iñárritu about “the perfectionist voice inside of him, why he doesn’t care about superhero movies, and why Alfred Hitchcock’s similarly single-shot film Rope is ‘mediocre.'”
“It’s focused on a play, but Birdman might as well be a film about filmmaking, and about creation in general, in all its messy, terrifying, vulnerable glory,” writes Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. “Like a sprawling Robert Altman ensemble film or Federico Fellini’s 8½, with which it could be shelved in some holdout video store some day, Birdman’s bursting with too much life to be constrained by its themes. It feels big in a way that has nothing to do with fantastical armies in array or giant explosions, and that’s enough to make you fall back in love with the movies all over again.”
“Like so many stories about existential crises, Birdman suffers from a kind of generic listlessness,” finds Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice. But it’s also “a marvelously entertaining picture, a work of ‘look at me!’ bravado that’s energized every minute. Its proficiency, the mechanically fluid kind, works against it in some ways. But none of that diminishes what Keaton does. His Riggan is like a grizzled nerve ending, frayed and whiskery but alive. Now and then, when we stop to take a breath and look into Keaton’s eyes, we can see all the ecstatic anguish there, as if the comedy and tragedy masks had been morphed into one. No wonder he’s the darkest knight.”
Updates, 10/16: “Alejandro González Iñárritu is a pretentious fraud, but it’s taken some time to understand the precise nature of his fraudulence,” writes the Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias. “For a while, it seemed like much of the blame could be shifted to his former screenwriting partner, Guillermo Arriaga, with whom he made a triptych of everything-is-connected dramas that used violence as an organizing theme. Their collaboration, which started with the exhilarating Amores Perros, diminished into didactic shtick by the time they got through 21 Grams and Babel, but Arriaga went to the well a fourth time on his own with The Burning Plain, his laughable debut feature, so perhaps it was Iñárritu’s screenwriter who was holding him back. Then Iñárritu made Biutiful, a 150-minute pile-up of tragedy and transcendence that straightened out the chronology, but was no less oppressive and self-serious. It helped clarify why Iñárritu, for all his technical bravado, is such a terrible filmmaker: He’s incapable of modulation…. There’s also a sourness to Birdman that Iñárritu can’t turn into wit.”
“Birdman’s aesthetic and intellectual ambitions outstrip its actual ideas,” finds Slate‘s Dana Stevens. “For all its brilliant aspects—Emmanuel Lubezki’s restless camera and Michael Keaton’s restless face, not to mention Naomi Watts, Ed Norton, and Emma Stone giving razor-sharp comic performances—Birdman makes you gasp at its formal audacity even as you sigh at its thematic overfamiliarity. It’s a high-wire act strung over a void.”
“Keaton hasn’t seemed this alive in years,” writes the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. “Maybe ever. Same goes for Alejandro González Iñárritu.”
“Although Birdman has some definite flaws,” grants Christopher Bourne at Twitch, “it is for the most part an incredibly impressive achievement in artistry and entertainment.”
Here in Keyframe, David Ehrenstein looks back on the history of flying superheroes.
Updates, 10/17: Birdman‘s “a destabilizing liftoff for a funny, frenetic, buoyant and rambunctiously showboating entertainment,” finds the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis.
“Birdman is cinema as an open wound, oozing and seething with an emotional ambition that matches and occasionally outstrips its formal audacity,” writes Barry Jenkins at the Talkhouse Film. “To watch it unfold—as I have more than once now—is to witness a filmmaker recognizing the boundaries of his work and pushing far beyond them. It is Iñárritu’s most personal film, a reckoning with self both vulnerable and severe. And there’s real joy here; pure, messy and striking.”
Its “obvious greatness is, in fact, what keeps me at arm’s length,” writes Sam Adams at Criticwire. “It’s clever, all right, but it never loses sight of its own cleverness, nor stops prompting you to appreciate just how goddamn clever it is.”
At EatDrinkFilms, Steve Englehart, formerly the lead writer for Marvel and DC Comics, wrote two treatments for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and reflects on the comic book culture that’s flourished ever since.
Variety‘s Scott Foundas profiles the star of both Batman and Birdman: “If you happened to come of age in the 1980s, Keaton was nothing short of iconic. ‘He had a quality that was hard to put your finger on; at that age it just seemed cool,’ says Norton, who remembers poring over the HBO broadcast schedule with school friends, circa 1982, noting each and every airing of Night Shift. ‘He had this kind of tossed-off insouciance that made it seem like he was floating a few feet above everybody else.’ As critic and frequent Keaton champion Pauline Kael deftly put it in her of that film: ‘Michael Keaton is a human whirligig with saucer eyes and quizzical eyebrows—the face of a puzzled adolescent satyr … Keaton is part hipster, part innocent lost soul; he’s the idea man, and he seems to have all the screwed-up big-city energy in his jive talk and his jiggling movements.'”
Updates, 10/18: “Birdman is a complete blast from start to finish,” declares Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com.
Margaret de Larios interviews composer Antonio Sanchez for the Film Experience.
Update, 10/19: “It is to Iñárritu’s credit that no one leaves this strange, abrasive film with his or her dignity intact,” writes Keith Uhlich at To Be (Cont’d). “Everyone is in some way a fool, and nonsensical, though they seem to be making sense. Appropriate for a movie that represents the known universe as morse-code hyphens on a roll of toilet paper, though I wasn’t fully on board until Iñárritu and Lubezki’s coup de cinema referenced the coup de théâtre that closes Fritz Lang’s Spies, with a Sin City twist.”
Updates, 10/23: “Birdman is so good, so profoundly entertaining, so confident that it makes you wonder whether the other Iñárritu… was a fraud all along,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “I mean, the fraudulence was on parade. The new movie is a parable of breaking out of the prison of artistic fraudulence and into some kind of personal truth.”
For the Austin Chronicle‘s Kimberley Jones, “the film is so soaring, sometimes literally, I hardly missed the feeling of hard ground underfoot.”
It’s “a glorious run-on sentence of a film,” agrees the Stranger‘s Paul Constant, but it’s “also a frustrating work of art that repeats itself mercilessly, falls in love with its own gimmickry, and seems to be unsure of what it’s trying to communicate to its viewers. It contains multitudes, contradicts itself, and apologizes for absolutely nothing.”
For Rolling Stone, David Fear asks, “Would it be safe to say that this film came from a place of personal creative frustration?” Iñárritu: “Yeah, it is very safe to say that!”
Updates, 10/24: “Birdman trades on facile, casual dichotomies of theatre versus cinema and art versus commerce,” argues the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “It’s a white elephant of a movie that conceals a mouse of timid wisdom, a mighty and churning machine of virtuosity that delivers a work of utterly familiar and unoriginal drama. Of such things, too, can Oscar buzz be made.”
“Birdman is self-reflexive, self-important, overwrought, half-baked and completely glorious,” writes Ray Pride at Newcity Film.
It’s “a giddy fantasia of themes and genres,” agrees the Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr, “and if not all of them fully cohere, then so be it.”
Updates, 10/25: Angelo Muredda for Cinema Scope: “While the film is ostensibly an angry manifesto stumping for artistic integrity in the face of a pablum-peddling culture industry that’s traded Raymond Carver for Stan Lee—as well as an illiterate critical class unwilling or unable to cultivate its technical competency—Birdman’s squawk is all but neutralized by its tepid bite. Though it is self-righteously mean in its broad strokes (as all polemics inevitably are), Birdman is also—this being an Iñárritu joint—an overeager, conspicuously crafted art object whose virtuosity is matched only by its digestibility.”
More from Steve Englehart and Dennis Harvey at EatDrinkFilms.
Updates, 10/30: “There are movies this year I’ve liked a lot more than Birdman, but no other that left me in such a giddy, jumpy, pleasurably caffeinated mood,” writes the Nashville Scene‘s Jim Ridley. “The intensity never lets up, but the emotional notes change depending on the duet partners: the simmering erotic sparks between the play’s co-stars, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts, who happen to be in varying stages of breakup/breakdown with the male leads; the anxious camaraderie between Keaton and long-suffering lawyer-producer Zach Galifianakis, who shows more range than he’s been allowed before. As Keaton’s embittered, recovering daughter, Emma Stone isn’t exactly a surprise—she’s showed enormous promise in a lot of movies—but her precisely modulated spite here brings flesh and blood to a sketchily drawn character.”
“Light as an anvil,” writes Sean Burns, “Birdman is a sometimes dazzling, often infuriating act of gaseous virtuosity. I was never sure if I should applaud or roll my eyes. A lot of the time I was doing both.”
Update, 11/4: “Before 43-year-old Birdman composer Antonio Sanchez met Alejandro Iñárritu, director, he was a diehard fan of Alejandro Iñárritu, radio DJ,” writes Matt Patches, introducing his interview with Sanchez for HitFix. “As a teenager growing up in Mexico City, 96.9 WFM, playing the ‘hippest music’ in town, would accompany the music enthusiast’s drives to school. At night, he’d tune in to Iñárritu’s ‘Magic Nights’ show, which Sanchez describes as ‘a little more daring’ than the average radio programming.” Now Sanchez is a professional jazz drummer who’s played in the Pat Metheny Group. Birdman is his first score.
Update, 11/29: At Filmmaker, Vadim Rizov notes that “people I respect and trust—Iñárritu haters no less—kept saying that Birdman was actually quite good, so I popped in; two hours later, I felt as if my initial disinterest had been validated the hard way.” He lists and elaborates on “Five Points of Contention.”
Update, 12/14: For David Fear, writing for Film Comment, “what this extraordinary work does best—indeed, better than most films about the emotional void of show business—is drop us into the mind of an actor beset by insecurities, vanity-project hubris, and that inner critic who simply won’t shut up, whisking us up into a dazzling, dizzyingly subjective whirlwind.”
Updates, 12/25: “What is this?” asks the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “The Wings of Desire, as directed by Mel Brooks? At certain moments, watching it felt like inhaling laughing gas mixed with helium…. The situation is every star’s worst nightmare: having to somehow prove your importance and validate your existence from scratch. Birdman is a delicious and delirious pleasure.”
For Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films, “Iñárritu captures the teeming, electric sense of the location in a way that few recent films have managed, recalling classic films whose grungy-glamorous portraits of urban gods captured both the city’s boiling, stygian ferocity and vigour, a crucible of possibility—movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), as well as the specific canon of Broadway films like A Double Life (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Country Girl (1956).”
Ryan Gilbey talks with Keaton for the Guardian.
Update, 1/2: “Whenever you think the film is a luvvies’ party about the awfulness of luvvies’ parties—a film so lovingly centered on its main two stars that some cast members (Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough) barely get a shout in—Birdman slips a quiet humdinger into the exuberance,” writes Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times.
Updates, 1/10: “The first thing you applaud about Birdman is Keaton’s audacity in accepting the role of neurotic Tinseltown veteran Riggan Thomson—and Iñárritu’s chutzpah in offering it to him.” Jonathan Romney in the Observer: “There’s real poignancy and panache here, suggesting expressive resources that Keaton’s career has rarely given him the chance to mine.”
Writing for Intelligent Life, Tom Shone argues that “the Mexicans are stealing Hollywood’s thunder now. They’re doing exactly what the French did in the 1960s. Birdman bears much the same relation to Batman as Breathless did to The Maltese Falcon: it converts a Hollywood formula into its own kind of free-form jazz.”
“Fundamentally, this is a film that boldly challenges the idea that love is a human right, a notion we have all been conditioned to believe,” writes Adam Woodward in Little White Lies. “Through Thompson and the people who orbit him, we are told not only that love cannot be bought, but that some of us simply don’t deserve to be loved. If this sounds like the kind of sobering epiphany Iñárritu has reached for (and sometimes failed to grasp) before, it’s rendered less idealistic through the film’s darkly comic tone.”
Update, 1/13: Steven Mears talks with Iñárritu for Film Comment.
Update, 2/23: Francine Prose for the New York Review of Books: “My admiration for Birdman was intensified by the fact that, just a few days before, I’d streamed The Player, Robert Altman’s sly, scathing critique of the Hollywood studio system’s insistence that films be hackneyed, maudlin, banal, predictable, safe, and aimed at an audience with the intelligence and attention span of a not-terribly-bright eight-year-old. Birdman is none of these things, and among the risks that Iñárritu has taken is to have assumed that an audience for it exists: smart, savvy viewers who can at once appreciate—and see beyond and beneath—its innovative technique, its nested ironies, and its knowing in-jokes.”
Update, 2/24: David Bordwell takes a close look at the structure, technique and intentions behind this year’s Oscar winner: “I’ve never cared much for González Iñárritu’s films; they always seem too close to their influences. (My remarks on Babel are here.) Still, Birdman seems to me a fascinating example of how traditions can be revisited