Note: I keep getting asked by friends about my thoughts on Birdman, especially in lieu of its phenomenal awards season success. I resisted writing a review of it back in October when I first watched it but finally decided that I had to draft something on it, especially since it was also named the best film of the year by the Florida Film Critics Circle, the state-wide critics group that I’m a member of.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a narrative and technical high-wire act—an ambitious, visually dazzling, and heartily-acted picture that divides its time between laugh-out loud laughs and melancholic musings on the nature of celebrity in equal measure.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thompson, an actor who was once a massive movie star thanks to his starring role in a trilogy of superhero movies called Birdman but is now a has-been. With his best days long behind him, Riggan is trying to launch a comeback—a last gasp attempt at artistic relevance—by producing, writing, directing and starring in a play on Broadway based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s a story that’s extremely relevant to Riggan because Carver was the reason why he became an actor in the first place.
But Riggan’s comeback is stifled by a series of mishaps from the onset itself. After one of his actors gets sent to the hospital during rehearsals because of a malfunctioning light, he is replaced with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an acclaimed stage actor adored by the theater-going public. Generally, that would qualify as good news—Riggan’s long-suffering manager/best friend Jake (a surprisingly effective Zach Galifianakis) certainly seems to think so. But Mike also happens to be an egomaniacal Method actor whose unpredictability threatens to kill the play even before it opens. Norton, who hasn’t had this juicy a part since 25th Hour, is in top form here as Mike, stealing every scene he’s in with a live-wire comedic performance on par with his best work.
If Mike’s behavior wasn’t problematic enough, Riggan also has to deal with a host of other characters including Laura (Andrea Riseborough), one of the four actors in the play, who informs him that she’s pregnant with his child. There’s also Lesley (an underused Naomi Watts), a struggling and grossly insecure actress who has finally accomplished her dream of starring in a show on Broadway thanks to Riggan, Sam (Emma Stone), his recovering drug-addict daughter, and Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his ex-wife who chides him for being an irresponsible father and for idiotically putting up all his life-savings on the production.
But the biggest problem Riggan has to deal with his himself, or at least his subconscious, which is depicted here as a costumed Birdman—a foul-mouthed costumed freak with wings. Birdman taunts Riggan at every step of the way, demanding that he give up the charade of trying to be a serious actor and just do Birdman 4 because no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never able to win the respect and adoration he desperately craves. Besides, no one cares about artsy-fartsy stuff. They want superheroes and robots and explosions!
Naturally, the biggest story going into Birdman is the casting of Michael Keaton as Riggan. Keaton, of course, became a massive movie star in the late 80s and early 90s for playing Batman in a duo of movies directed by Tim Burton. Although the casting lends a certain meta-element to the film, it’s not like Keaton completely disappeared from the screen after leaving the cape and cowl behind in 1992’s Batman Returns. Unlike Riggan, the actor has enjoyed a long and diverse career even if it never hit the stratospheric popularity of his time playing Batman. As Riggan, Keaton expertly fluctuates between bouts of madcap comedy, melancholia and mental anguish, showcasing a range that’s surprising, powerful and incredibly effective.
But if Keaton is the biggest story going into the film, the biggest talking points leaving the film will undoubtedly be its exquisite staging and photography by director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men). The decision by the Mexican-born filmmaker (whose previous films include misery porn like 21 Grams, Amores Perros, Biutiful and the Oscar-nominated Babel) to shoot Birdman to look like it was all accomplished in one long and extended take is what makes it such a technical high-wire act. Lubezki’s free-flowing, uninterrupted camera, shot in medium close-up, gives the film a sense of urgency, successfully putting you into Riggan’s anxious mindset. Like Riggan’s play, one mistake by any single member of the cast and crew and the entire thing falls like a stack of Dominos. Yes, it’s gimmicky as hell but the choice keeps everyone from the director to the actors to the set-designers on top of their game.
My big problem with Birdman, i.e. the facet that prevents it from being a great movie, is its uneven screenplay, co-written by Iñárritu along with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. Although it’s a highly original piece of work buoyed by funny, crackling and inventive dialogue that simultaneously skewers and pays homage to Hollywood and the theater, it’s also a thematically confounding film. While the themes of celebrity, the struggle for relevancy and respect are addressed, they’re never fully explored.
Worse, Iñárritu and company’s treatment of their female characters is at best embarrassing, and at worst, misogynistic. All of the female characters, be it Lesley, Sam, Sylvia, Laura or the theater critic played by Lindsay Duncan, are portrayed either as damaged goods, insecure damsels-in-distress or conniving shrews. The most offending scene is one where Leslie and Laura start making out for no reason whatsoever. It’s a cheap ploy for laughs crafted by screenwriters with the maturity of horny 14-year-olds.
Additionally, with the film’s subtitle (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), intentionally open-ended (read: illogical) climax, and jibber jabber about about “popularity being the slutty little cousin of prestige,” Iñárritu and company are clearly positing the film as a grand statement on art. But in reality, Birdman doesn’t really say anything at all, other than the old “making movies and plays is a really hard task, man!” In many ways, Birdman’s opinion of itself is just as pretentious and hollow as its lead character. It would like to think of itself as something important, but in reality, it’s just a witty comedy, magnificently-shot. If this was Iñárritu and company’s intent all along, then bravo to them but it’s going to be lost on most viewers. It certainly was lost on me.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriter: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis
Producer: Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, James W. Skotchdopole
Running time: 119 minutes
Companies: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence