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‘Birdman,’ or The Drawbacks of Obvious Greatness

'Birdman,' or The Drawbacks of Obvious Greatness

Birdman” — or, if we must, “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance)” — is a great movie. I say that not because I love “Birdman,” or because I find it particularly moving or insightful, but because I have to. The movie demands it. It insists on it, as if Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu were standing beside beside you, anxiously tapping his foot: “Don’t forget to say ‘great.'”

As nearly every review, including mine, agrees, “Birdman” is a tour de force, a demo reel for the possibilities of cinema, circa 2014. It’s not set in space, nor does it feature lifelike characters built out of pixels, but from the opening shot, which pulls back from a meditating Michael Keaton to show him floating, midair, in a Broadway dressing room, the movie is out to knock your socks off. That opening shot — not technically the first, since it’s preceded by a brief, abstract prologue — is also effectively the movie’s last, since Gonzáles Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski have contrived to present the action as if it unfolded in one continuous take. In a handful of instances, you can see where “Birdman” uses brief bursts of blackness to hide the joins between shots; in (presumably) many more, you can’t. Digital technology, which for the first time made it possible to shoot a feature-length film without changing reels or tapes, has progressed to the point where it’s no longer an impressive feat: If you can seamlessly blend any number of shots — and, by having the camera seem to pass through a hole in a window grating or abruptly take flight, advertise that you’ve done just that — there’s no reason to assume anything is as it seems. Once a feat to make movie buffs drool, the extended sequence shot is now just one more digitally abetted illusion.

It certainly seems real enough, and old impulses die hard. BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore says “Birdman” is “enough to make you fall back in love with the movies all over again,” and in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stephen Rea calls it “an out-of-the-blue masterwork that ranks as one of the best films of not just the year, but the decade, the century.” Even Vulture’s David Edelstein, who damns “Birdman” as “a triumph of vacuous virtuosity,” admits the standing ovations are “not unwarranted.” “How can you not be in awe of the sheer physical achievement, of the intricate choreography of the actors and the camera, of the gung ho performances?” Slate’s Dana Stevens calls it “a high-wire act strung over a void.”

There are a small handful of “Birdman” skeptics: Film Freak Central’s Walter Chaw calls it “an incredible bore”; Slant’s R. Kurt Osenlund says  says Gonález Iñárritu and his three co-screenwriters “has largely placed regurgitated ideas into the mouths of gifted actors, then dropped them amid a kooky story that plays like an elaborate distraction from what little ‘Birdman’ actually has to say”; the Dissolve’s Scott Tobias says that the director’s “inability to take it down a notch makes him uniquely unsuited to the backstage film, which requires an offhand deftness that isn’t in his limited repertoire.” But they’re swamped by the raves, which are often take on a slightly messianic quality: “Birdman” is so clearly a masterpiece. Don’t you see?

That obvious greatness is, in fact, what keeps me at arm’s length. It’s not that ever movie has to be subtle and understated: I’ve fallen for a Baz Luhrmann or two in my time, and you could argue that Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is no less insistent on its own profundity. But there’s something about the way “Birdman” gets right up in your face and screams “This is important!” that leaves it feeling more like a crafty exercise than a work of art. It’s clever, all right, but it never loses sight of its own cleverness, nor stops prompting you to appreciate just how goddamn clever it is.

“Birdman’s” subtitle, which — clever clever — is both nakedly pretentious and a satire of naked pretension, refers to a kind of empowering näiveté, the kind that allows artists working in unfamiliar forms to stumble into enlightenment by virtue of not knowing the conventional wisdom of what they can and can’t do. It’s a perfect description of what’s missing from “Birdman,” which lacks so much as a single uncalculated moment, or an instant when it feels like the audience can contribute something of their own. It’s over-rehearsed and overdetermined — thrilling, but in the way a roller coaster is thrilling. Every time you get back on, the ride will be the same.

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