Review by C.J. Bunce
It always makes sense to be wary of movies that trickle out to the public in limited release. If you’re not in the movie business, you may also want to be careful about seeing films about the movie business, especially shows about Broadway. Sometimes knowing what is behind the stage door ruins the magic. A Chorus Line, The Player, Barton Fink, are all about staging theater or film. But it often seems like writers choose this topic as a crutch–these are the topics drama college professors praise, of characters full of angst, a script riddled with expletives and characters bantering long speeches full of dialogue and situations calculated to shock and surprise. They hope the industry insiders will latch onto the movie even if the movie-going public could care less. These movies come off as self-indulgent and trite, the stuff of drama school or Summer stock. Birdman unfortunately is another one of those movies.
Michael Keaton plays an actor named Riggan. You would never know Riggan was his name from watching Birdman as it sounds more like Reagan as uttered by the cast. Riggan has some kind of schizophrenia, causing him to think he is being talked to by the Birdman, a costumed character Riggan played that once earned him fame. There’s not enough of the Birdman in the film to understand whether Riggan simply has mental problems or he really has some magical power. Or maybe it’s intended to be allegorical. It’s hard to know. Riggan is trying to produce and act in a play, doing something to get recognized, to make himself relevant, when in fact, he’s still a household name.
Behind Birdman is a variety of movie gimmicks, all arising out of an ambitious director. Ambition is a great thing, to be certain. Yet director Alejandro González Iñárritu throws too much at the audience at once, and although he is certainly getting noticed on the awards front, Birdman doesn’t have the balance to stand the test of time. Slathered in tongue-in-cheek irony, Birdman relies on the misconception that Michael Keaton, who played Batman in real life, is a washed-up has-been who hasn’t had a good job in years and we will all have some nostalgic reaction to this. (In fact, Keaton has hardly seen a year since he started in movies where he wasn’t in one film or another).
So the publicity folks want to spin this film as the next Sunset Boulevard, another story of a has-been actor struggling with self-worth. It’s a mirror image of the New York film and theater industry looking back on itself. A critique? Poking fun? Maybe actors care about that. Maybe producers and movie moguls. But why should audiences? It just doesn’t come close to the subtlety and grand storytelling that made Sunset Boulevard so superb.
Another gimmick is Iñárritu shooting the film to look like one continuous take, something out of a Robert Altman movie only Altman would have had a reason for it. To his credit, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does this without the annoying shaky camera work of modern network cop shows. Yet the endless scenes still may inspire a headache. This is not helped any by Iñárritu’s choice of tapping a Stanley Kubrick style catalog of classical music excerpts instead of a cohesive, inspiring or dramatic original score. Finally, if that weren’t enough to digest, Birdman poses as satire. That doesn’t quite work either as it takes itself too seriously for satire, as seen in a scene where a fan asks to have a photo taken with Keaton and he politely does so. Riggan knows the difference between fame and reality. What’s so special about this actor’s plight? Birdman is billed as a black comedy. The problem with black comedies is you often must struggle to find what is funny. Or maybe the problem is Iñárritu doesn’t know what he wants his film to be.
I’m the first to consider seeing a movie in the theater for the actors alone. Birdman is up for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, along with nominations for actors Keaton, Emma Stone, and Edward Norton, among other awards. As to Keaton, his fans have no doubt he has the acting chops to win an Oscar. And you can see Emma Stone’s agent begging for this role for his client. “It could be your Mira Sorvino,” you can almost hear him saying. Yet you can’t help but wish for better roles for this young actress who already has had so many great parts. “Stay away from these ugly roles,” you want to tell her, like Roger Ebert advised Jennifer Jason Leigh in his review of Fast Times at Ridgemont High back in 1982. Same goes for Naomi Watts, who gives a performance full of lines on and off-stage that sound like she is projecting toward the back of the community stage theater. She has proved she can do so much better than this.
If there is one performance that shows some range, it is Edward Norton’s role as Keaton’s co-lead in the play. I’m sure acting students will watch his opening scene over and over, as it exhibits a wide range of acting styles and emotional nuance–it’s the diamond in the rough, although bogged down, again, by the ugliness of the role. Oblivion’s talented Andrea Riseborough has a small role as Riggan’s girlfriend that may hopefully get her noticed for future projects–hers is another depressing part in the story that makes you wish these actors were here to do something else.
If recognition for Keaton and his fellow actors here would mean more and better roles, then we hope the Academy makes it happen for them. It would be similar to Bill Murray’s acting nomination for Lost in Translation, Eddie Murphy’s nomination for Dreamgirls, or Dan Aykroyd’s nomination for Drive Miss Daisy–all well-deserved honors for worthy actors that may or may not have been for the entire body of their life’s work as much as for the one role.
The truth is none of the above criticisms would matter if the film made you feel good. But it’s just a look at ugly, unlikable characters, focused on the worst about people, and although it grasps the dark part of “dark comedy,” it’s just nothing pleasant or entertaining. Unless you just need to check this off your list for Oscar nomination time, Birdman is one to take a pass on. And if you want to see Keaton at his best, try out one of our recommendations from earlier this week. We all long to see his next Batman, Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom, or Jackie Brown. This just wasn’t it.