Review: 'Birdman'


[vc_row][vc_column width="2/3"][vc_column_text disable_pattern="true" align="left" margin_bottom="0"] Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once Birdman, a superhero with his own movie franchise that made everyone involved a lot of money. But now, 20 years later, Thomson has nothing but lingering fame to show for his past successes. His solution? Write and direct an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. This is Birdman, the latest from writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu. It’s an odd choice for the man who brought us 21 Grams, Biutiful and Babel; I don’t think anyone expected a Hollywood-obsessed, bombastic comedy from someone who has force-fed us bleak pieces of cinema for the past decade.

And, ultimately, it’s proof that Iñárritu’s wheelhouse lies elsewhere. While he wrangles sterling performances out of an excellent cast – one that includes Edward Norton lampooning the nitpicky asshole he’s reported to be on-set and Naomi Watts as his long-suffering girlfriend-slash-Broadway amateur – and reminds us all why Keaton was once neck-and-neck with Tom Hanks in the “interesting young actor” department, he refuses to allow for even a smidge of subtlety. And this is a movie that could sorely use it.

Thomson is a sad sack who can’t handle his fall from grace. He tells a story about sitting next to George Clooney on an airplane and laments who’d get the front-page recognition if it crashed. Names like Ryan Gosling, Jeremy Renner and Robert Downey Jr. are dropped with forced casualness. Every possible opportunity to mock Hollywood convention is attacked with the vigor of someone with endless gripes against a ruthless system. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, it’s all heavy-handed and strained.

It’s also the kind of movie where a character tells a detailed story that’s clearly a metaphor for his or her state of mind, and then follows it up with “I guess I’m just trying to say [explains feelings outright].” Nothing has room to breathe; nothing is allowed to hit home on its own. Unfortunately, this often crops up in scenes with Thomson and his out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone); as Riggan rants about the perceived evils of our viral-obsessed society and his daughter fires back with long soliloquies about his glaring issues, the end result is the frustrating experience of having characters’ emotions outlined in great detail.

Is this on purpose? We are watching a movie about a play, and the acting and dialogue on display in Birdman are both overly theatrical. But it’s not clear if this is the case; while the claustrophobic locations and music (most of which is diegetic) both echo the theater, it feels more like an airing of Iñárritu’s many grievances.

That said, given that Keaton is on-screen for 98% of an overbearing film that desperately wants to be interesting and quirky, what he does with this character is a godsend. There might not be a Birdman without Michael Keaton; the plot is a twisted variation of his own career post-Batman, which adds instant depth to an otherwise-hackneyed idea, and his ability to alternate between deathly weary and uncomfortably manic is necessary for a cinematic endeavor with this much pent-up energy.

After being badgered nonstop by a gruff Birdman voice in his head that refuses to accept reality, Thomson sends Birdman to its conclusion with a decision that’s both disastrous and brilliant. But it’s not clear if it’s a deliberate one; I interpreted that he’d finally figured out a way to both appeal to the masses and literally bleed for his craft, but there’s not an overwhelming amount of evidence to support that theory. It could be a coincidence or it could be orchestrated, and the ambiguity is more frustrating than intriguing. Birdman feels like that far too often: an attempt at Important Cinema that falls apart upon closer examination.

Which is a shame, because when it considers broader themes – delusions of grandeur; the inability to change; managing a lifetime of regrets – it can be delightfully affecting. A conversation between Thomson and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) near the end of the film, in particular, reveals so much without being overly explanatory. They both ooze the emotion of two people who’ve given each other hell and lived to maintain some sort of arms-length relationship; we could’ve used a dozen more scenes with that kind of potency.

But Iñárritu prefers to keep his focus on Hollywood satire and the ills of modern society; he’d rather rail against YouTube and Twitter than scrutinize the real differences between generations, or the emotional chasms between human beings. I’m sure it’s much more fun to rant about how social media stinks. It’s also a lot less poignant.

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  • Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
  • Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo
  • Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
  • Runtime: 119 minutes
  • Release date: November 14, 2014


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