Review: 'Birdman'

After debuting in Venice just a few days ago, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu ("Amores Perros," "Biutiful") has now bowed his new film "Birdman" at Telluride, where the lines were as long as the expectations were high.

"Birdman" stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a once-upon-a-one-time box office megastar for playing the caped-and-cowled superhero of the title in three huge, loud hits. Years later, Riggan is throwing his fortune and sanity into his Broadway debut, a play based on the works of Raymond Carver where he's writing, acting and directing. Any similarity between Thompson's resume and Keaton's is purely intentional.

The backstage farce as depicted here is a noble tradition, stretching back to "Kiss Me Kate" and "Noises Off." Riggan feeling small even as the pictures got bigger is a clear nod to "Sunset Boulevard." Inside the toxic bubble of celebrity culture, Iñárritu is also using Riggan's rise and fall and attempted resurrection as commentary on a society more obsessed with good cheekbones than good work, an age that won't endure, never mind enjoy, any artwork longer than a Vine clip or more complex than a Tumblr GIF.

In the chaos leading up to opening night, as Riggan scrambles to make the previews go even vaguely well, Iñárritu has his camera glide, bump and cut through events in one continuous, cinemagically unbroken shot as Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography creates Riggan's world and Antonio Sanchez's drum-based score bumps, bangs and bursts out of the speakers.

The easy joke is that while many are touting "Birdman" for Best Picture, it's undoubtedly the front-runner for Most Picture. The camerawork's sinuous movements become forced and then tedious, not serving the story in any way but instead functioning as a "Look at Me!" attention-getting device designed to make you notice directorial genius more than it is to help you follow the characters.

The score is loud, atonal and offered as an all-you-can-eat affair when a small taste or two would have been sufficient. Riggan's inner conflicts are shown through special-effects sequences that add nothing beyond proving Iñárritu can juggle yet another ball.

This is not a film in need of creativity, passion or energy; what it needed was restraint, consideration and direction. 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.

With its mentions of and nods to method acting, Marvel Movies, "Mulholland Drive," "Macbeth" and Malibu, "Birdman" is explicitly designed for people who love show-business as much as they worry about it. But all the cultural cues -- up to and including the ha-ha snigger of ex-Batman Keaton as the ex-Birdman -- don't add up to anything, and at times "Birdman" feels like a filmed version of a bad New Yorker Cartoon, one where the viewer's smile doesn't come from any punchline but from the satisfaction they feel at understanding the reference.

Keaton is excellent here, as he always is, even when the direction and script (by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, a too-many-cooks affair smeary with the fingerprints of many hands) aren't satisfied with just his talents and squirm about him frantically like over-eager puppies.

Zach Galifianakis gives what may be his finest work as Riggan's lawyer, finally playing a character with spine and strength. Edward Norton is also a highlight as a theater actor who's a God on the boards in front of an audience and a mess everywhere else. Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough are all good, with Stone's work as Riggan's post-rehab daughter making her first among equals of all the supporting actresses.

Thematically, the film is dedicated to the obvious -- time moves on while we aren't looking, show business can be awful and venal and glorious, wanting is the root of all suffering, big studio blockbusters can be bad -- and its final notes, which present human tragedy and death as some kind of metaphorical victory lap, are utterly tone-deaf and pseudo-spiritual.

"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.