Broadway, Midtown Manhattan, New York City, the glitz, the glamour, the sham. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman is a shiny exploration into the mind of a troubled performer and an aged superstar that received worldwide critical acclaim upon its release, including winning Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards. Just like the allure and wildly expensive admission to a Broadway performance, however, Birdman is all squark and showmanship, without the necessary context to make it truly impressive.
As impressive as pairing the right wine with a fish course, the conceit of Birdman is that it invites you to marvel at the mastery prowess without imparting anything other than a sheep dressed in admittedly fantastic garments. Captured with technical prowess by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Alejandro G. Iñárritu fine-tunes the film’s imposing visual style whilst working relatively little with co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo to imbue the film with any real meaning.
Such creates a conceited film riddled with trite pretence in which actors including Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts play sensationalised, unlikeable versions of their real-life selves. Keaton, riffing off his time as DC’s caped crusader in Tim Burton’s Batman, fuels the story as a mainstream superhero actor-turned-arthouse performer who tries to embody his new image by writing, directing and featuring in his own Broadway play.
Deeply ashamed of ‘selling out’ in his previous career by taking the role of the titular ‘Birdman’, Keaton’s Riggan is searching for artistic redemption by tackling a more serious Broadway play. His blockbuster persona is difficult to shake off, haunting the actor in the form of a disembodied voice, and at one point a graphic hallucination, with each one highlighting how his new project will fail.
Those that Riggan surrounds himself with are creative leeches, clinging on to the latest artistic foray, illustrated no better than in Edward Norton’s Mike, an industry-known method actor who proves to be severely mentally unstable. Getting drunk at the plays first rehearsal whilst attempting to rape one of the female actors whilst they lie in bed on stage, he’s a character played for laughs, but whose exaggerated personality does nothing to give the film any serious credentials.
Speaking to Deadline at the time of the film’s release, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu stated: “What this film talks about, I have been through…I have seen and experienced all of it; it’s what I have been living through the last years of my life”. Meanwhile, in the same interview, co-writer Alexander Dinelaris described this as “a laughing look at oneself”, though he commented that the film had to be presented as comedic, as otherwise, “It would have been the most unbelievably self-absorbed look at the subject”.
Herein lies the truth to the Oscar-winning film that finds itself so self-absorbed with its own glamorous identity that it forgets to provide any meaningful subtext, or in fact, any deserved moments of levity. Without laughs, it is simply a “self-absorbed look at the subject”.