Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Birdman

Self conscious irony is a little bit unfair. It can be hilarious, but it sort of casts an invincibility spell on you. If it’s true-to-life, good on you, you’re meta-realism! If it’s broadly painted or overacted, it’s biting satire. If it’s plausible it’s “clever”, if not it’s “brutal”. It’s Stephen Colbert vs Jon Stewart — it doesn’t need to provide hard answers or elaborate on the problem, it just needs to be wrong with a wink. It’s not fair that Birdman is so irresistible. But like Colbert, it takes an unfair advantage and makes it great.

Birdman is the latest film by Alejandro Iñárritu, a satire about art taking itself too seriously by an artist who’s basically the Platonic Ideal of taking oneself too seriously. Michael Keaton (Batman) plays Riggan, a washed-up actor haunted by the shadow of a decades-old superhero franchise, investing the last shred of his star-power in a failing play. Edward Norton (ex-Hulk) plays Mike, a notoriously difficult method actor who is lauded by critics but despised by anyone forced to put up with him. Emma Stone (Spiderman) plays his daughter, who reminds him that nothing he’s done — the play or, especially, a stupid superhero blockbuster — matters. In case this all isn’t meta enough for you yet, Riggan lives in the same world where Robert Downey Jr. played Iron Man, Meg Ryan got a nose job, and his deepest fear is dying in the same plane crash as George Clooney (also Batman), whose obituary will steal all the headlines. Hollywood is a soul-crushing FX machine, and “true art” is made up of demigod-like actors and impossibly spiteful critics. The satire is overwhelming, but not exactly deep.

In the wrong hands, this would have been cute and a little cloying. In Iñárritu’s, it soars as one of the most confident, bombastic films of the year. The satire may not offer a thoughtful point of view, but it’s hilarious and visceral, sold with the perfect balance of seriousness and overacting by its leads. Speaking of things which should have felt gimmicky, the camerawork — which frames the entire film as one long take — is particularly phenomenal, alternating between claustrophobic close-ups and grand, sweeping flights through corridors and windows and New York City streets. Aided by an offbeat drum soundtrack and an unreliably-narrated script which effortlessly shifts between realism and fantasy, the whole thing feels like a sprawling, romantic play. Except it’s nothing like a play. It’s its own unique entity. It’s like Charlie Kauffman and Iñárritu swapped places to tell the same meta-artist story: where Synecdoche New York was bleak and depressing, Birdman is upbeat and untamable. It’s a fantastic film, and if it cheated along the way, that’s fine by me.

See my review on Letterboxd