I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu. While I can say they are well made, well-acted and the music by his regular collaborator Gustavo Santaolalla is wonderfully composed, I find his films to be very thematically obvious, depressingly tedious and a complete chore to watch. Despite that, I was excited for Birdman. Most of it is due to Michael Keaton being one of my favorite actors. If he’s in something, I’m sure as hell gonna be there. I also found the marketing to be very intriguing and showed a possibility of Iñárritu actually having some fun.
Birdman follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up Hollywood actor famous only for a trilogy of superhero films where he portrayed the titular Birdman. As a way to reclaim his past glory, he writes, directs and stars in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway. He deals with various internal and external struggles in the days leading up to the opening night. Be it the headache that is Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a stage actor who is as arrogant and pompous as he is charming and talented, or Riggan’s shaky relationship with this recently-out-of-rehab daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone).
In a sense, I applaud Iñárritu for finally making a film that is at least enjoyable to watch and have some interesting elements to it; unfortunately he goes back to familiar habits so often leading to many of my frustrations with the film. I did like the film overall, but I will first address the elements I didn’t like. Most of these problems lie with the script which is written by four people (Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo). This feels so odd considering how much the film feels like it was written by a resentful film school dropout. At many points the film feels the need to make shallow comments on Hollywood that would’ve felt deep or insightful if I was 15 years old. To me, those moments felt oddly disconnected from the rest of the film which felt like it was going for a more focused character study. Ultimately, it led to the film distracting itself from true character moments by its attempts at being as clever as it can possibly be.
I also found myself irritated with how the film’s thematic qualities are about as literal, obvious and painstakingly self-absorbed as Iñárritu’s previous films. There’s no subtext whatsoever because everything that would’ve been subtext is just the text. Every character will get at least one monologue where they will not only explain in clear detail what you should be thinking at any given moment, they will tell you who they are, what they represent to Riggan Thomas as a character, and why they think he is the way he is. There’s not going to be any need to delve further into any layers because everything is presented so clearly without any subtlety. It’s a shame because the film does deal with some compelling themes with a satiric bite such as dishonest artistry, modern celebrity culture, media perception, ego driving art and vice versa. However, none of those themes resonate because of one, the obviousness that I already mentioned and two, the lack of context. What I mean by that is, given the nature of Iñárritu’s films, I’m never sure when the film is being sarcastic or if it’s being honest. For example, there is a scene where Riggan confronts a theater critic (portrayed by Lindsay Duncan), who is the oh so clichéd all-powerful critic who will either make or break the entire show because apparently that’s the kind of trite writing I’m supposed to expect out of an indie drama meant for adults. Anyway, she tells him that she will destroy his show because she hates everything that Riggan represents despite not having seen the show by that point. At that moment, Riggan goes on a long rant about joyless critics who have no value because reasons. It’s a cringeworthy scene, and only goes to show that the film has a big problem if a Pixar film about a talking rat does a better job at handling a similar theme with a critic in a more mature and emotionally resonant manner. The question is whether or not the scene was meant to be taken seriously? In all honesty I can’t tell. There are many moments where I can’t tell if the film is trying to have a genuine moment or if Iñárritu is trying to let me in on some kind of joke.
In terms of the film being a black comedy, it really wasn’t that funny or clever. Aside from a few chuckles, the film’s humor felt oddly lackluster and relied more on the actors to meet the energy of the film as opposed to the writing. There was one particular sequence that really bothered me in which Mike Shiner practically attempts to rape his co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) in front of a live audience and it felt like it was being played for laughs. This is followed immediately by an abrupt moment of lesbian experimentation with another co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) because…Mulholland Drive reference? I don’t know. I guess comedy just isn’t really Iñárritu’s thing because half the time I’m not sure what the “joke” is meant to be, and the few times where I get what the joke is supposed to be, it’s simply a shallow reference to something else.
So, one of the most talked about aspects of the film is the way the whole film was shot to make it seem like it was done in one long, continuous take. Frankly, it’s very well done. It’s a masterclass in continuity, choreography and editing. A lot of the fun comes out of seeing where the cuts are hidden, some are obvious, and some are not. However, it is pointless. I get the whole connection with how the one-take thing gives a similar feeling to watching a play or something, but there’s no real thematic or meaningful reasoning behind it. There are definitely many scenes that would have been amazing in one take, if the rest of the film was shot traditionally. But there’s no reason for the entire movie to be like this. Let’s look at Gravity for a recent example, which happens to use the same director of photography, the great Emmanuel Lubezki. In Gravity, there are many scenes done in one long take, not the entire film, but sequences. This works for Gravity for two reasons. One makes the camera feel like this free-floating, all-seeing eye that moves as freely as you would if you were there in space witnessing the events of the film firsthand. The long takes in Gravity are also a masterful execution in building up and holding tension. That idea of holding tension would’ve worked for Birdman in a number of sequences, but not for the entire film. Also, Gravity was able to use its cinematography to create some stunning images that said so much with so little, whereas with Birdman, I’m stuck with a film that is 75% medium shots and awkward close-ups that brought back Les Misérables flashbacks.
To counter the negativity, here’s something that I’ll say is thoroughly great and that is the acting. Michael Keaton delivers one of, if not the, best performances of his entire career. He’s able to transcend the initial casting gimmick with his history as Batman and is able to deliver a wonderful and engrossing piece of acting, being able to fully sell even the weaker script elements. Edward Norton is probably the closest cast member to actually be playing himself, and he does a great job. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with the role and it’s easy to see why people are loving his performance. However, for me Emma Stone is the only other cast member that equals Michael Keaton in terms of sheer acting prowess. She’s one of the few casting choices that didn’t seem to rely on any gimmick and I think it allowed her to deliver a truly honest, emotionally raw and magnetic performance. Or maybe it’s just how her seemingly giant eyes and pale skin makes her look like an anime character. It is a bit unfortunate that once she delivers a monologue rather early in the film, she no longer has anything to do. As far as the rest of the cast goes, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis do a great job with their supporting roles, even if they aren’t given much to do. Amy Ryan and Lindsay Duncan, I felt, were wasted. This really works well as an actor’s movie. If the film was made the same exact way, but with lesser actors who aren’t giving their A-game, the film would’ve been atrocious.
I’m aware that I’m gonna be in the minority in that I wasn’t impressed with Birdman. I do still like the movie overall, but I had problems that I had a hard time getting past. It’s technically impressive, very well acted, but the script is shallow and frankly, a bit full of itself. There is a frantic energy to the film that few films have matched this year, and a production crew that deserves all the credit possible for making the faux one-take shot work as well as it does. Also, I gotta give major kudos to Antonio Sánchez, who is the Mexican jazz drummer that provides a vast majority of the film’s music with only his drums in a way that feels very on edge and improvisational. Even though I’m not totally in love with the film, it’s still something I would recommend. You don’t often see movies this unique and gleefully weird released widely in theaters. If anything, support this film so that we can get more risky projects out in the cinemas across in the country instead of a handful of arthouse theaters. Also, any project that has the chance of finally getting Michael Keaton an Oscar has my full support.
Side Note: In case I couldn’t make it any more obvious, I am a huge Michael Keaton fan. I definitely rank Birdman among his best performances. For those not so knowledgeable, I would say his essentials include the 1982 Ron Howard comedy Night Shift, 1989’s The Dream Team, the 1983 John Hughes scripted Mr. Mom, the 1988 Tim Burton classic Beetlejuice and the lesser-known and criminally underrated 1988 drama Clean and Sober. There is another film worth mentioning and what makes it special is that it’s the only film that Michael Keaton has directed. It’s actually not too long ago; it is the 2008 drama The Merry Gentleman. The film co-stars Keaton and Kelly Macdonald and it is about a woman who goes to Chicago to start a new life after leaving an abusive relationship and forms a bond with a hitman undergoing an emotional crisis. It’s a fantastic film; I highly recommend it, especially if you like Michael Keaton.