Alas my friends, we have arrived at the undisputed champion of this years festival circuit. The film that every online blogger, newspaper critic, and random IMDB message boarder who was lucky enough to score a screening says that you ‘have’ to see, and why wouldn’t they? Birdman seems to have everything that these sorts of audiences love, experimental filmmaking techniques, hollywood satire, and a couple leading men in desperate need of a comeback. Hell, it seems as though this might be one of the main oscar contenders this year. Even with all that hype surrounding it, I did my best to approach Birdman not as an impending masterpiece going in, despite being almost certain that I would join that very chorus of ‘Birdman’ worshipers. I can’t say it worked out that way…
Birdman centers on Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up actor who back in the early 90s played an massively popular superhero named Birdman, but is now stuck writing/directing/staring in a broadway adaptation of a book for, as his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) puts it, rich white people who are more concerned with what they are getting to eat afterwards. The rehearsals and previews for this production have been, simply put, a disaster. Not only is Riggan dealing with his own existential crisis as he faces the potential end of his career, but when one of the leading men in the play is brutally injured, Riggan is forced to turn to one of his actresses’ (Naomi Watts) boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an acclaimed but deliriously egotistical man who is almost purely concerned with how he thinks the play should be.
On paper, Birdman certainly is a deeply impressive film, particularly from a technical standpoint. Almost the entire film is presented as one continuous take, and while there are certainly cheats here and there, this gives the entire film a very play-like feel (deeply appropriate considering the setting). It’s not only impressive based on the sheer level of technique and blocking incorporated, but it also really gives the actors a chance to live and breathe in these scenes. While the dialogue is certainly very over the top, the presentation aids that, and as such, the non naturalism comes off a great deal more organic then it would if the film was made traditionally.
The actors here are mostly stellar. Keaton certainly has not had such a meaty role in quite some time, and he jumps full force into it, embodying Riggan’s madness stemming from wanting to feel important again. It’s deeply personal, darkly comic performance that does anchors everything wonderfully. Norton is even better, adapting to and satirizing the arrogant, control hogging persona that he seems to have built a reputation for having. Even so, Mike is never just a stock villain, getting plenty of moments to show humanity mostly through his interactions with Stone, who is also very strong as the film’s main voice of reason. Zach Galifianakis also has a nice role as Riggan’s agent, nicely subduing his normal persona while still delivering the laugh. The only weak link here is Watts, who goes slightly over the top here, particularly in several monologues where her character is going off about how she was just an innocent little actress with broken expectations. Her performance makes it feel a little forced, but granted, it’s not a very good character either.
So with all these great working parts, how come this film didn’t hit for me the way it has for so many others? To put it simply, I just didn’t care. Despite director Alejandro Inarritu’s best efforts in making me sympathize and connect with these pathological, egotistical people, it just never connected with me. There’s an aura of self importance that protrudes through this film like an airborne virus, and it never lets up. It’s a movie that repeatedly bashed me over the head with just how “important” true acting and production is, and how “soulless and cynical” the world outside of it is. Yes, I understand that it’s all satirical, but since the film isn’t nearly as funny as it seems to think it is, it just spills over into condescension. As a result, I was never truly gripped by the main conflict, merely forced to enjoy individual shining moments (of which there are quite a few), as opposed to the film as a whole.
Also, the movie completely squanders what could have been a brilliantly dark and deeply satirical final shot in favor of laboriously moving on for another fifteen minutes to end on an image that is equal parts baffling, nonsensical, and silly. I was literally ready to forgive most of my problems with this film because of this potential ending, and then it just spat in my face. Very disappointing indeed.
If I were to grade Birdman on a report card based simply on assembly, it would probably sore pretty high. There’s no doubt that Inarritu has created a masterfully assembled piece here, with some of the most fascinating cinematography I’ve seen in a film in many years, coupled by fantastic performances. With that said, I quite simply never found myself enjoying the film, and I would be lying both to myself, and to you, my lovely readers, if I avoided that simple truth. It’s definitely worth seeing to form your own opinion, but for me, this is one flight that I’ll definitely be only taking one way.