[Birdman expands to more theaters this weekend. Click here for Perri’s review from the 2014 New York Film Festival]
To paraphrase one of the most famous plays of all-time, Alejandro González Iñárritu Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is “but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,” and it signifies almost nothing. Macbeth uses this to refer to life, but for Iñárritu—who literally has someone shout this soliloquy off-camera—it applies to the entirety of a picture that rejects subtlety in a misguided attempt to blend the language of film and stage, and address a multitude of topics including acting, celebrity, the New York/L.A. divide, superhero movies, critics, and ego. The result is a cacophony of opinions and half-cooked ideas where the only one that comes close to fruition is an exploration of a nervous breakdown where identity has become consumed by artistic desperation.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) became famous in the early 1990s for starring as the titular superhero in the Birdman movies. He’s become permanently associated with the character, and in an attempt to breathe fresh life into his stagnant career, he’s thrown every penny and ounce of emotion into a stage adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”, an adaptation he not only wrote, but is also directing and starring. When one of his actors is injured by a falling light, Thomson hires the talented but volatile Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a replacement, but his prima donna behavior further tears away at Thomson’s tired psyche. Additionally, he’s trying to repair his relationship with his estranged, recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone), handle his affair with co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and fend off a New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) whose review could sink the play. Oh, and Riggan might have secret superpowers.
Iñárritu seems convinced that if just throws enough at us, we’ll put all the pieces together because something big can’t be a convoluted mess; it’s too creative! Birdman constantly borders on pretentious but there is the semblance of rational thinking behind some of Iñárritu’s methods, so I won’t venture so far as to call them “gimmicks”.
His most eye-catching move is that the film is cut in such a way as to make it look like one, continuous take. In other words, there are no edits. The edit is what defines cinema as an art form unlike any other. To remove it, you would then have the stage, and Birdman is an experiment in trying to blend the two. However, the edit isn’t the only important aspect of cinema. The angle and placement of the camera is part of cinematic language and storytelling. Compare that to the stage where perspective shifts based on where you’re sitting. Stage acting must always be somewhat exaggerated for the cheap seats while the camera can provide a close-up that can catch the little emotions.
And therein lies one of Birdman‘s biggest problems—everything is shouted for the people in the back of the auditorium and it comes off as pandering and self-important. There’s no room for subtlety because the world is a stage and everyone is ACTING and providing big monologues. Iñárritu seems too wrapped up in his own “brilliance” that he constantly condescends to the audience by having his characters describe each other and become mouthpieces for the director to editorialize on a variety of issues.
There are welcome hints of subtlety sprinkled throughout like Riggan’s best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) also being his producer/attorney, i.e. someone he can fire, which makes true friendship impossible. But then there’s an angry fight between Riggan and Sam where the two engage in one of the movie’s many shouting matches, and Sam proceeds to tell him/us exactly who Riggan is: an actor struggling for respect under the guise of pursuing art. It’s not enough for Riggan’s words and behavior to belie his true motives. Another character has to spell them out, and this needless exposition happens again and again.
It all starts adding up to a movie that doesn’t come off as clever, but instead it plays as painfully superficial. It’s constantly frustrating approach as the little touches are so much better than the spoon-fed “satire”. When a Japanese reporter misinterprets Riggan’s comments about Birdman 4, it’s a sly note about the future people want for Riggan rather than allowing him to forge his own career path. But when he’s mobbed by Birdman fans, it’s an obvious signal about celebrity culture and fading stardom. When a family asks to get a photo with him, the kid asks, “Who’s this guy?” You know, because Riggan isn’t famous anymore.
Furthermore, casting Keaton to somewhat break the fourth wall is far less interesting than watching Riggan grapple with his ego and identity. I want Keaton to get high-profile projects like Birdman, dramas that put him in a lead role where his talent will be appreciated. But in Birdman, his presence provides a distraction as we’re constantly torn between appreciating Riggan as a character and constantly noticing the slightest shred of a biographical element regarding Keaton’s post-Batman career.
Iñárritu doesn’t trust us to figure out the real-life correlation between fame and respectability or that he even has nice bits of dialogue like Mike telling Riggan, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” We have to remember that there’s a big comment about how the masses cherish superheroes rather than artistic integrity. You, dumb audience member who wants to take a photo with Michael Keaton only because he played Batman, you’re the problem. And because Iñárritu thinks you’re still probably too slow-witted to pick up on that, he has Riggan’s interior monologue (which speaks in his Birdman character voice) say, “People? They love blood! They love action! Not this talky, philosophical bullshit.”
It’s a shame Iñárritu feels like he has to treat his audience this way when there’s so much potential to Birdman. This is a ridiculously talented cast, but they all have to play their emotions at 11 and do eye-rolling behavior like Sam sitting on a ledge because (as she tells us, naturally) adrenaline is the only drug she can get. Talking about the divide between Hollywood and New York theater is an interesting topic, but we get it spelled out in a diatribe by the Times critic. Also, we should know that critics have agendas, so then Riggan must deliver a diatribe about how critics are garbage. Imagine Anton Ego’s sentiment in Ratatouille delivered in the whiniest, clumsiest, most negative manner possible and you’ll have something akin to what Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo are pontificating.
Birdman does share a single kinship with its protagonist: painful insecurity. Iñárritu can cover up shortcomings with pretty cinematography and stylish editing, but he’s scared shitless that you won’t respect his ideas and opinions (neither of which are all that novel or thought-provoking). If he can just work outside the box, then you’ll applaud him for being bold and fearless. Birdman is desperate to be noticed, and if it throws up enough artistic flourishes, then perhaps you’ll give the picture the respect it craves.