Michael Keaton in Birdman

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.

Keaton in Birdman

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.

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