The Pitch: What We Talk About When We Talk About Films With Dominating Technical Conceits Released In The Middle Of Awards Season.
The Review: Alejandro González Iñárritu was the first Mexican director to be nominated for an Oscar, but his back catalogue of films have a more serious reputation than those of his contemporaries Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, the latter winning over the geek crowd with his highly detailed fantasies and the former becoming increasingly renowned for his long single takes in films such as Children Of Men and last year’s Gravity which saw an opening of seventeen minutes and you wonder if this left Iñárritu challenged to determine if it would be possible to construct an entire film in such a manner with modern technical wizardry just as applicable to the grounded, real world as it is to space, perhaps even more so if you restrict the movements of your characters to a single location, in this case a theatre where Michael Keaton’s tortured former superhero actor Riggan Thompson, star of the now defunct Birdman trilogy, is attempting an act of self-redemption with the production of a Broadway play in which his direction and acting are becoming unbalanced by his alter ego whispering provocatively in his ear even while his producer and lawyer friend (Zack Galifianakis) does his best to keep the sinking ship afloat, his daughter (Emma Stone) attempts to be an assistant while sorting out her own addiction issues and the last minute replacement (Edward Norton) brings a Method madness which complicates his role and threatens to derail the production before it gets to opening night after a series of previews which we see unfolding over the course of several days, possibly even weeks, as we and the characters roam the inner hallways, the stage, the roof and occasionally the streets of the theatre while the script by a team of writers including Iñárritu attempts to understand the conflict between acting and the nature of celebrity and how much one can be compromised by the other but the arguments feel dated and the pot-shots at the real life actors name checked in the early scenes feel cheap and unearned, Riggan’s silent partner of the gravelly Batman voice and seeming telekinetic ability proving further distractions and potentially exploring interesting ideas but like a hyperactive child attempting maths problems it never sits still for long enough to allow you to consider the solution, the tangents to the subplots involving Norton’s rooftop conversations with Stone and scenes with Riggan’s performer girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his leading lady (Naomi Watts) offering some of the best character moments but sucking the momentum from the overall narrative which has the surface feeling of a stage play but in both its internal conceit and the overall effect lacks the natural vocabulary of either stage play or film, the first forty minutes in particular being a succession of scenes which are staged without any variation in tone or pitch and which become plagued by the fourth wall breaking jazz drum score from Antonio Sanchez which initially drives tension but increasingly becomes an irritant as the whole language of film is gradually dispensed with in a way that many have regarded as a supreme technical achievement – and it is – but never manages to rise above being anything more than that, and if by now you’re thinking that my attempt to write this entire review in a single sentence is even more of a a cheap trick than the one I’m calling attention to, then that’s exactly my point: as the play unfolds over two hours without the normal breaths and pauses that standard filming or cutting provides it became for me as punishing to watch as I presume reading this review has become for you and for that I genuinely apologise, if you haven’t given up already but then you wouldn’t been reading this part anyway so ignore me, and anyway you get the benefit of punctuation and the best the film can do to shake things up is a disappointingly brief but vibrant scene where Birdman is brought thrillingly to life, because the narcissistic fabrication that Iñárritu has fashioned so exhausted me with its constant demands to observe every element of the foreground and background and its inability to resolve any of its subplots to any degree of satisfaction that its only joy comes from within the moment, rather than by being able to appreciate the film as a complete work and maybe this another one of those cases like Magic Eye paintings where everyone who can do them thinks they’re brilliant but people like me who see differently find it commendable that so many others enjoy it but personally can’t help but be incredibly frustrated by the whole experience, and while many of those isolated moments are enjoyable, often filmed in long, technically demanding takes which undersell the efforts the actors would have invested in them, the end never justifies the means and the final irony being that half of the best moments are in the trailer but they’re actually more gratifying when taken out of context than assembled into an overwhelming stream of consciousness that hopefully means that now we’ve seen this once, in service of a story that’s less successful at skewering celebrity culture and acting than TV series such as The Larry Sanders Show were twenty years ago and one which also strives for magical realism but ends up confounding itself like a magic trick without a prestige, Iñárritu might stop attempting to one-up his fellow Mexicans and learn how to subvert standard narrative conventions as effectively as he did in his early films rather that in this award-baiting torture that is rightly earning plaudits for a Keaton renaissance and for strong work from the rest of the cast but which sadly doesn’t merit the remainder of the praise being heaped upon it.
Why see it at the cinema? If you want to play Spot The Joins, then you stand the best chance of doing that in the cinema. And good luck to you. Since pretty much every aspect of the production is ramped up to 11, you may as well do that with your viewing experience as well.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, sex references. If it’s come to the point where fourteen year olds can’t be allowed to hear two grown adults laying in bed and talking about having sex, which is what the BBFC extended classification info would seem to suggest, then maybe we should all give up and go home.
My cinema experience: The first of what I expect to be dozens of uses of my Cineworld Unlimited card, on this occasion at their Cambridge branch. Just a shame that I’d already paid to see it a week earlier at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton before a clogged up motorway and a broken down train on the Central Line scuppered my plans.
The Score: 6/10