Birdman Review (2014) | Can't Stop the Movies
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Birdman (2014)

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Birdman - Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez InarrituKyle Like Banner

Birdman is a nearly flawless execution of an old, stale story. It's exhilarating for the first act, where the craft on display overshadows everything else onscreen, but despite some outstanding performances and nice humorous touches, the screenplay's inability to navigate familiar territory in any truly original way begins to act as a weight around its neck. This diminishes the accomplishment without ruining it—in the end, the emperor has no clothes but he sells it so well we don't entirely mind.

The story is familiar: aging actor Riggan Thomas, famous for playing a superhero called Birdman in the 90s but washed up since, is staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story in a last-ditch effort to revive his career. And the film's technique has been written about quite a bit by now: director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have made the film appear to unfold in one single 2-hour-long take, which covers several tumultuous days leading up to the play's opening night. The camera rolls through the halls of the theatre, in and out of dressing rooms, up to the roof, and out onto the street (in what is often a hyperactive variation on the Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk) as it follows Riggan's attempts to keep everything together amid a building professional and personal breakdown.

Riggan's central dilemma is the need to feel relevant as an actor and celebrity in a media world that has moved on from his height of fame 20 years ago—and the simulated long take is appropriate for the way it brings the idea of carefully crafted presentation to the forefront. We're aware as the audience that the film was not actually filmed in one take—day fades to night; pans up to the skyline and back reveal completely different geography at the camera's starting point. Furthermore, there are elements throughout that make us question the intended reality of what we're seeing. What seem like non-diagetic bits of the soundtrack are suddenly revealed to be coming from a man playing drums on the street. Riggan is able to move things in his office seemingly by telepathy. My favorite, a voice that seems suspiciously close to Christian Bale's infamous just-popped-a-hernia Batman growl interrupts Riggan throughout his day to cast doubt on his insistence that he is more than simply the man in the suit from the Birdman movies.

Emma Stone as Riggan's Daughter

Emma Stone doesn't have enough to do here as Riggan's daughter fresh out of rehab, but she does have one great scene of brutal honesty unloading on her self-absorbed father.

In this way the form functions to reflect Riggan's world, one in which he has established his own personal relevance through the public appreciation of his cultivated celebrity persona. His ex-wife (played by Amy Ryan in disappointingly few scenes) at one point accuses him of “confusing love with admiration,” and one wonders if he can distinguish the difference. Appropriately, his Carver adaptation gives his character ample opportunities to ask “why he always must beg people to love him,” and while Riggan gives a cheesy reason for choosing this story as his writing-acting-directing Broadway debut, the real reason seems to be that he identifies with this central question. Off stage, we see him repeatedly confronting those around him for standing in the way of his success—“this play means something to me,” he says at one point, “This is my career.” That the other people in his life wouldn't be permanently tuned into his existential crisis over becoming irrelevant in the public eye seems incomprehensible to him.

I'll add my voice to the chorus of those already praising Michael Keaton for his performance here, all of whom seem to have forgotten his subtle, manically great turn in Don DeLillo's Game 6 nearly a decade ago. Keaton is especially wonderful considering that the screenplay gives him no particularly new ways to represent the character's chronic narcissism. He makes empty attempts to connect with a daughter he was never present for growing up (played by Emma Stone), he barely acknowledges his girlfriend's revelation that she's pregnant, he mortgages a house his family is relying on to finance his play—these are standard moves, and even with the heedless momentum the movie builds from scene to scene, they seem a little worn out whenever it slows down to make a point of how self-absorbed Riggan is.

Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomas

Whenever the screenplay goes full tilt into the fantasy world of Riggan's mind, it provides some of the best scenes and single shots in the movie.

Furthermore, Keaton's inner panic at the perceived “last chance” the play represents is so potent we don't really even need to see the character's self-importance reflected off of others. He presents Riggan with a torturous tunnel vision so complete that we believe his single-minded detachment in a scene where, finding himself locked out accidentally, he has to walk past a large crowd on the street in his underwear in order to get back into the theatre through the main lobby. Edward Norton is also fantastic as a troublesome actor brought in as a replacement at the last minute, who clashes with Riggan in a passive-aggressive battle of egos.

There's an interesting thing going on here that may help illuminate some of the film's carefully disguised shallowness. While the experience stands wholly on its own, independent of any knowledge of the actors involved, there are clear references to their “real-world” public personas. Keaton played Batman in Tim Burton's '89 and '92 films, only to go on to a career of significantly smaller projects—this film has given him exactly the kind of career boost Riggan hopes for with his play. Likewise, Edward Norton is respected, like his character, as an actor who values the art of film more than blockbuster success, and who is also well-known for being a control-freak who's difficult to work with.

Edward Norton in Birdman

Norton is almost always great, but he's not getting enough attention here for his hilarious performance as a pompous Method actor.

Many of the film's jokes work not just on a character level, but also as a kind of meta commentary on the actors involved. The movie is patting the audience on the back for understanding these self-reflexive elements, but by their very nature these jokes don't work unless the audience has bought into the cult of celebrity being criticized and undercut. How humble of such actors to make fun of themselves at the expense of their own real-world reputations, it suggests—but why is this funny if there isn't any true value in these public personas to begin with?

In this same way, Iñárritu doesn't quite know what he wants us to think of Riggan. He is endlessly self-absorbed, and while the movie suggests a redemption that seems at first to exist solely in his own mind, it eventually steps back in an effort to be kinder. In doing so the film's ending wears on too long, and it squanders a chance to make a much sharper satirical point in the final scenes in favor of what seems like sentimentality but could be... something else?

Almost all of these are complaints that make the movie more interesting to talk about after the fact, but with such technical greatness in the cinematography, the pacing, the structure, and the acting, you wish Iñárritu had a more subtle touch as a storyteller. Still, this is an impressive step up for an obviously talented filmmaker whose recent efforts have been so mired in insistent and congratulatory self-importance that they'd be right at home with Riggan Thomas himself.

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Birdman PosterBirdman (2014)

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Screenplay by Iñárritu & others.
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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