Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous films (Biutiful, 21 Grams) have been derided by some critics as “misery porn.” I’ve avoided his previous films for this reason. As an Iñárritu novice, I found his newest film Birdman to be mostly (but not entirely) free of misery.
Birdman stars Michael Keaton (as a thinly veiled version of himself) as Riggan Thomson, an actor famous for playing the superhero Birdman. Riggan is starring in a Broadway play that he’s also adapted and directed. It’s a desperate bid for relevance: Riggan’s washed up and wants to believe he’s more than Birdman. He hires wildcard Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, also a thinly veiled version of himself) as his co-star and the whole apparatus begins to crumble, all while Riggan engages in surreal bits of levitation and telekinesis that may or may not be real.
The members of the cast, particularly Keaton and Norton, deliver interesting performances. Keaton and Norton riff off their real-life public personas: Keaton as the ex-superhero whose mask still defines him, Norton as a brilliant actor who creatively hijacks every project he acts in. The film reframes Keaton in the same way the play-within-a-film reframes Riggan. The film acts as a bizarre reflection of itself.
The movie is shot to appear as one long continuous steadicam take, which does give the feeling of live theatre as actors perform scenes in real time to great effect. However, it doesn’t feel as though Iñárritu ever does anything with the “one take” conceit; the method doesn’t accomplish anything that couldn’t have been done with long takes, edited traditionally. It feels like he’s done it just for the sake of doing it, and it makes what should be extraordinary feel unremarkable.
Finally, the film’s last act is extremely problematic. Iñárritu takes what’s been an otherwise smart movie and indulges his instinct for misery. He confuses suffering for pathos, taking the film into bleak territory that’s at odds with the rest of the film. It’s a lazy ending to a movie that’s anything but.