A FUNNY THING HAPPENS the longer you think about Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman: There's less and less to think about. At first glance, the movie's a hell of a thing: a sprawling, multi-threaded saga told via long shots that dip and swing through the cramped hallways, grimy dressing rooms, and cavernous stages of a Broadway theater, where Riggan (Michael Keaton) is attempting to launch a comeback. Years ago, Riggan played the superhero Birdman in a series of blockbusters; now he's writing, directing, and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story to prove he's a Legitimate Artist. But Riggan has three problems: He's broke, the play's going terribly, and the disembodied voice of Birdman won't stop bossing him around. Something that may or may not be a problem is that Riggan may or may not have telekinetic powers.
That'd be a lot on its own, but there's more: Riggan's daughter (Emma Stone) is doing a crappy job of both going clean and being Riggan's assistant; one of the play's stars (Naomi Watts) is dangerously nervous; Riggan's lawyer (Zach Galifianakis) won't stop forecasting doom; and one of the play's leads is being played by Mike (Edward Norton). As an actor, Mike's an unmistakable, overpowering genius, beloved by critics and theatergoers; as a person, he's an unmistakable, overpowering douchebag, and his involvement in Riggan's earnest take on What We Talk About When We Talk About Love threatens to both save and ruin it. Meanwhile, Antonio Sanchez's drum score pounds in the background, and Birdman still won't stop telling Riggan what to do.
On a technical level, Birdman is astounding: Iñárritu's takes are so long they seem designed to one-up those of Alfonso Cuarón, and each of the impressive actors does an admirable job weaving themselves into the tumbling story. (One scene between Riggan and Mike is a remarkable verbal wrestling match—graceful and ugly, all clashing egos and deft reversals.) But as the pressure on Riggan mounts and as the darkly comedic Birdman grows less comedic—the New York Times' ice-blooded theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) relishes telling Riggan she's going to destroy his play—and increasingly dark, there's a gaping hole in its center that gets harder to ignore.
That vacuum isn't for lack of trying: Iñárritu and his co-writers (Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo) seem to have the most fun when delving into the film's self-awareness. Birdman features at least three refugees from superhero blockbusters (I count one Batman, one Incredible Hulk, and one Spider-Man's Dead Girlfriend), and even as it metatextually riffs on the success of The Avengers (and even as Birdman's voice sounds suspiciously like Christian Bale's Batman), it goes the too-easy route of being openly hostile to superhero franchises. More interestingly, it's openly hostile toward theater—lobbing off cracks about the art form's old, white, and dying audience, and rendering Riggan's attempts to "succeed" on Broadway as Quixotic delusion. But all this anger is vague—more cranky than cutting—and like a poorly aimed gun, its shots never quite hit home.
The same might be said of Birdman—for all its ambition, it never stops feeling like an arthouse take on Noises Off. Throughout, there's a contrived sense of distance that will be more familiar to theatergoers than moviegoers—a hyper-awareness of the construction of the thing rather than of the thing itself. Where Cuarón's long takes disappear—immersing us in the action, making us forget we're staring at a screen—Iñárritu's draw attention to themselves, pushing us away. That'd be fine, but Birdman also wants us to feel for Riggan—too bad, then, that the fact a former Batman is playing a former Birdman means we never stop smirking long enough to invest in him. There's no doubt that Birdman is very clever about what it says. The question is if it has anything to say.