Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a once-popular Hollywood actor best known for playing a fictional superhero named Birdman. It's been some 20 years since he turned down Birdman IV and thus killed his career. In an attempt to prove to the public that he's actually a great actor, Thomson decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman documents the days leading up to his show's premiere.
Iñárritu made a name for himself with a series of boldly nonlinear yet ultimately pretentious dramas like Babel and 21 Grams. Birdman marks his ostensible departure into comedy, but its full title, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) shows that the Mexican director hasn't yet outgrown his pomposity.
In interviews, Iñárritu has confessed that his initial idea was to make a movie about himself, a director dealing with the pressures of making a film. Since Fellini already did this back in 1963 with 8½, Iñárritu wisely chose to rejigger the material for a washed-up actor. (Birdman nevertheless makes clear allusions to the Fellini film, including a flying sequence lifted directly from 8½'s opening scene.)
The comparisons between Keaton's own post-Batman career and Thomson's are perhaps a little too on-the-nose. And yet they aren't on the nose, since a) Keaton has always been known for other films besides Batman, b) audiences never lost respect for him even after he stopped being an A-lister, and c) he's stayed far away from the Broadway stage. (That other forgotten Batman, Val Kilmer, is a much better analog for Thomson, as he has lately been treading the boards in his own one-man shows.)
This is one of the main problems with Birdman: It is simultaneously too obvious and kind of clueless about what exactly it's lampooning. It's right on target about the fickle power of social media, for example, yet it also includes preposterous "comic" moments, like a reporter bluntly asking Thomson if he injects fetal pig semen into his face – as if an entertainment journalist would ever ask such a question. This uneasy mix of knowing satire and broad, unconvincing farce pervades the film. Some will find it an intriguing combination. I simply saw it as evidence that Iñárritu doesn't really know what his point is.
There is also Birdman's visual gimmick, in which the entire film, despite unfolding over several days, is stitched together as one seamless take (with a few cross-dissolves indicating the change from night to day). While it's a technical triumph, I find such wizardry to be self-conscious and self-congratulatory. It makes the audience pay more attention to the filmmaking process than to the actual story. Iñárritu may be intentionally betraying the artifice of his movie with tricks like this, but that doesn't jibe with the many earnest moments that suggest he's also aiming for genuine human drama.
All that said, I didn't hate Birdman. The acting is solid, the camerawork is impressive, the percussive jazz score is great, the film is certainly one of a kind, and it's not boring for one second. For all those reasons, it's worth watching. But I can't help feeling that Iñárritu and his cast and crew are convinced that they have a lot of important things to say, when in fact they're not saying anything at all.