Review: Birdman (2014)

Emerging from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), as the on screen title announces the film, I was struck by an intense feeling of disappointment. It’s one thing not to like a film, but it’s another for a film to let one down. True, I haven’t been a fan of Iñárrrtu’s previous films (21 Grams, Babel), but about an hour into Birdman I was exhilarated. I was prepared to be won over. But by the end, I felt like the script had betrayed the fine work on display. While I was into what was going on, at least on a formal level, Birdman is ultimately several virtuoso performances, from actors and technicians, often thrilling, but ultimately in the service of nothing.

It’s not that I oppose films that grapple with the nature of performance, or reflect the idea that  all of life is a stage (see films I love, such as Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, or more recently Holy Motors or this year’s Clouds of Sils Maria). But the way that Birdman feels compelled to underline its own thematic interests by having an on screen character shouting Shakespeare’s famous line from Macbeth, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing,” is just one example of how it doesn’t trust its audience. Thanks, I wasn’t sure if I would have gotten it otherwise.

Always careful to underline its own importance, the film never successfully sells the notion that the transcendental egotism of its central character can win him redemption. But a redemption of what? It wants us to believe that Riggan Thompson, played in self-referential glory by Michael Keaton as a washed-up superhero actor, star of the first three entries of the fictional Birdman series, will find what he’s looking for. Riggan is staging a Broadway performance of his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, starring himself. It’s a bid for the actor to gain a kind of respectability and legitimize himself as an “artist” and not merely a “celebrity.”

When Riggan’s other male lead is hit by a falling light, threatening to sue the company, popular actor Mike Shiner (a commanding Edward Norton) steps in as a welcome upgrade. Riggan and Mike tussle over creative choices and clashing male egos. Riggan is also juggling his relationships with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), his fresh from rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and his co-star/lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Like many other films that explore the struggles of the male artist, such as Fellini’s , the artists relationships with the various women in his life are what structure the film. Riggan’s female lead, played by Naomi Watts is more essential to the film than Riggan’s friend and producer played by Zach Galifianakis. Still, the film is structured around Riggan’s ego. It makes a kiss that Watts’ character shares with another character in the second half of the film seem even more puzzling, as it is never followed up and adds nothing to the film.

But the first hour or so of the film, filled with comic character moments, and embracing the chaos of the backstage drama, all filtered through Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid, seemingly single-take camera work, is exhilarating and fun. I laughed a lot, and it’s a technical marvel. Yet, Lubezki’s bid to seemingly out do his own long take from last year’s Gravity ultimately comes across as unnecessary and false given that it was accomplished digitally and not by a single take (more like Hitchcock’s Rope than Sokurov’s Russian Ark in execution). The film doesn’t stay entirely with Riggan the whole time, thus the effect is that it foregrounds the audience as a viewing character rather than highlighting Riggan’s subjectivity. Because of this, it comes across more as technical grandstanding than organically flowing from the needs of the film.

Fittingly for a film about actors, the performances of the leads are what stand out the most. Much has been made of former Batman star Michael Keaton taking on the role of Riggan, for the way Birdman has haunted Riggan’s career suggests that for Keaton, Batman might have done the same. However, the parallel is fairly facile given that Keaton was never all encompassed by Batman (it was his origin casting that was the surprise) or type-cast by the role, and he has given other roles, like Beetlejuice, that still command respect all these year’s later. Furthermore, having Riggan be haunted by the actual presence of his former character pushes the metaphor too far. We’re less experiencing the difficulty of separating one’s career from a defining performance and into the territory of personality disorders. Perhaps if the rest of the film were to share those scenes’ whimsical or fantastical sense, it could work. But instead it pushes the film further and further off the rails, until we’re left with an ending that doesn’t really make any sense, thematically or logically.

However, Keaton does throw himself into the role, relishing his character’s neurosis and foolishness. It’s a very fine performance and shows Keaton as an actor is still very capable. If it only leads to him getting more work, it makes the film’s existence worthwhile. However, Edward Norton steals the show in the first half as Mike Shiner. Norton’s Mike gives Riggan a run for his money as a supreme egotist, and ends up stepping on Riggan’s toes in giving him advice on the play.

Mike almost disappears in the second half of the film as Birdman descends into Riggan’s unsustainable quest for success and relevance. Early in the film Mike tells Riggan that he needs to simplify one particular scene in the play, as the lines are redundant, saying the same thing over and over four different ways. Ironically, Birdman itself never heeds that advice, instead hitting the same beats over and over in its insistence that Riggan giving his all in the pursuit of his dream is transcendent; that in the pursuit of the performance, against insanity and other people, he will accomplish his goal of creating a lasting work of art. Instead, the whole thing comes across as a betrayal of performance, where the “best” is made equivalent to “more.” No wonder people are talking Oscar. Birdman never productively interrogates the self-reflexivity of the craft of acting, instead taking its own trite advice as true wisdom.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, USA)

5 out of 10

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu; screenplay by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone; starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts.