With a morning rush of first reviews, the 71st Venice International Film Festival—and its Competition—are now officially on, and we begin with Variety‘s Peter Debruge: “A quarter-century after Batman ushered in the era of Hollywood mega-tentpoles—hollow comic book pictures manufactured to enthrall teens and hustle merch—a penitent Michael Keaton returns with the comeback of the century, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a blisteringly hot-blooded, defiantly anti-formulaic look at a has-been movie star’s attempts to resuscitate his career by mounting a vanity project on Broadway. In a year overloaded with self-aware showbiz satires, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s fifth and best feature provides the delirious coup de grace—a triumph on every creative level, from casting to execution.”
“Birdman flies very, very high,” agrees the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “Dating back to his international breakthrough with Amores Perros 14 years ago, Iñárritu’s films have always coursed with energy and challenges embraced. Here, he and his indispensable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have gone the extra mile to make a film that, like a far more complicated and sophisticated version of what Alfred Hitchcock did in Rope in 1948, tries to create the illusion of having been filmed all in one take.” Birdman “takes place almost entirely within or very near the venerable St. James Theater on West 44th Street. This is where faded big screen luminary Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is about to begin previews for what he hopes will bring him renewed acclaim and respectability, ego boosters that have eluded him in the two decades since he decamped from the Hollywood mountaintop upon saying no to Birdman 4.”
The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin: “Because we see it in a single run-through, the rehearsal of Riggan’s play itself looks and feels a great piece of theater—live, unpredictable, loose as a dream, yet also fatalistically locked on course. Riggan, his publicist Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), daughter (Emma Stone) and fellow cast members (Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough) come clattering in and out of shot like characters in a farce, underscored by a stumbling, skittering drumbeat. There are streaks of 42nd Street, The Producers and Sunset Boulevard here, but otherwise, Birdman isn’t much like anything else at all. Think Black Swan directed by Mel Brooks and you’re in the vicinity, but only just.”
“This isn’t the super-cynical, snarky piss-take of actors it might sound like,” writes Cath Clarke for Time Out. Iñárritu feels for these people.” And “Keaton is dream casting, and he’s fearless, never holding back with the rodent-like, twitchy facial tics.” Screen‘s Mark Adams agrees. Keaton “has a rare ability to easily blend comedy and drama as well being a great physical performer, seemingly at ease with the complex shooting style of the film…. But if Michael Keaton is very much the moving, complex and troubled face of Birdman, there is no getting away from the sheer polish and precision that Alejandro González Iñárritu has brought to the film.”
If Birdman doesn’t screen at Telluride, its next stop will be New York—festival director Kent Jones calls it a “great New York movie, and a great Broadway movie, by the way, and a beautiful movie about theater.”
Updates: “I sat through the whole thing with a mounting alarm,” writes the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “There’s no doubt it makes for a jubilant ride, a galvanic first blast. But it remains a film which feels deeply thought rather than deeply felt; a brilliant technical exercise as opposed to a flesh-and-blood story. Is it a redundancy to complain that Birdman lacks soul? Maybe so. It’s a depthless, self-absorbed film about a shallow, self-absorbed man; jittery and relentless from the first to last gasp.”
For the Playlist‘s Jessica Kiang, Birdman is “so exciting, so moment-to-moment enjoyable that to expect profundity would be greedy. And yet it delivers on that level too; it is as thoughtful and smart as it is infectiously absurd…. Keaton is simply superb throughout to the point that it’s difficult to work out if the film derives its off-kilter energy and arch self-awareness from him or vice versa, as he unerringly negotiates the various aspects of his multifaceted role (not least as a proxy for Iñárritu himself). But then, the entire cast is outstanding, delivering a brilliantly-written script (by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) that generously gives each of them at least one, and often several killer moments.”
“Defined by its own snowballing eccentricity, Birdman has too many balls to juggle around, though admittedly its protagonist does too,” finds Tommaso Tocci at the Film Stage. “The extent of the film’s thematic canvas—reality vs. representation, personal suffering as artistic transcendence, a dash of contemporary movie business satire—mirrors the trajectory of the man’s psychological breakdown, even if he weren’t talking to an imaginary version of himself in full Birdman costume and Bale-like (nice touch) growling voice, or channeling his rage into telekinetic powers…. It’s probably no coincidence that Birdman falters a bit by opening things up in the last few minutes, indulging one super-fantasy too many.”
“Riggan is a gift of a meaty, unflattering role for any middle-aged actor (‘Sixty is the new thirty, motherfucker’ is one of the film’s many quotable lines), but feels absolutely tailored to Keaton’s strengths,” writes Catherine Bray at HitFix. “[W]hile Norton blazes deliciously in the first act before being somewhat sidelined…, Keaton holds it in, and holds it in, and holds it in some more, teasing us with tiny flashes of the crackling mania we know he’s capable of unleashing… We’re grotesquely desperate to really see him lose it, consequences be damned, then remorseful as his disintegration takes effect.”
Updates, 8/29: “No question that Birdman is a breathtaking technical achievement, not a stunt,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “Shot in 30 days after a long rehearsal period, with the actors’ and the camera’s movements calibrated to the inch and the millisecond so the action flows smoothly, the picture has the jagged energy of a long guerrilla raid choreographed by Bob Fosse…. Birdman has the aspect of naturalism: scenes lasting 10 minutes or more (edited together with invisible transitions) demand that a couple dozen performers and technicians all be in perfect synch. It’s a precision ballet whose most impressive effect is that it plays out like real theatrical life.”
For Adam Woodward at Little White Lies, Birdman is “a wickedly subversive, riotously funny intertextual psycho-odyssey that doesn’t so much play fast-and-loose with cinematic convention as spit directly into its face.”
“Birdman is an often intelligent and unpredictable look at actors, loving their spontaneity and creativity without glossing over their emotional needs and volatility,” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap. “Riggan is so consumed with self-doubt that he often hears the voice of Birdman in his head, telling him to abandon this artsy-fartsy stage business so he can return to the screen for the ‘apocalyptic pornography’ that global audiences crave…. The film’s more fantastical moments, courtesy of Riggan’s imagination—the conversations with Birdman, the actor’s apparent telekinetic abilities—often border on the precious, but the writers are mostly successful at circling around and making them pay off at the end.”
Five out of five stars from John Bleasdale at CineVue.
Updates, 8/31: “This is not a film in need of creativity, passion or energy; what it needed was restraint, consideration and direction,” argues James Rocchi at Film.com. “This is not saying that Birdman is awful, or a debacle; there are superb scenes here, as well as excellent performance moments, but they get drowned out in the flood of Iñárritu’s ambition, energy and fantasies…. Birdman overwhelms you by design and with vigor, but when the shouting and steadi-cam shots are over, there’s both far too much and not nearly enough left behind.”
“Birdman often reeks of overly fancy screenwriting trickery,” grants Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. But it also “offers the rawest performance in Keaton’s career, and puts the last few decades of his projects in a bracing new context.”
Updates, 9/2: “Flawed as it is, with problematic plot development in the second half and only semi-successful incorporation of surrealism, Birdman is still a grand, rich cinematic achievement and experience,” writes Ambrož Pivk for the International Cinephile Society.
Listening (17’45”). John Horn talks with Iñárritu for The Frame, a new KPCC podcast.
Update, 9/4: If Birdman “represents an actual reconfiguration of his sensibilities and not a mere one-off,” writes Michael Nordine at the House Next Door, “then perhaps we can consider films like Babel the necessary ashes from which Birdman had to rise and hope his ascendance continues.”
Update, 9/5: “A scathing, witty scene in which Keaton’s character faces off against a New York Times theater critic and both diametrically opposed viewpoints are made to seem completely, inarguably correct singlehandedly justifies the entire movie,” finds Jim Hemphill at Filmmaker.
Update, 9/7: “The bravura filmmaking is undeniable,” writes Patrick Z. McGavin at RogerEbert.com. “I sensed something beyond that, as the extraordinary technological achievements were utilized to explore the nakedly human and emotional implications of the material…. Cassio’s famous lament, in Othello, of a reputation destroyed, ‘I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial,’ sets the wounded and anxious tone.”