Movie Review: Birdman
*or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance*
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s latest film, Birdman, feels like an inversion, but not a departure, from his earlier works. In 21 Grams and Babel, Inarritu uses dialogue and painstaking attention to detail in order to humanize surreal events that would otherwise be melodramatic. In Birdman, the same focus on heavy amounts of dialogue and fine-grain details are used instead to give a surreal tinge to what is actually a very mundane story: a washed-up Hollywood actor (Michael Keaton) who was typecast due to his portrayal of a popular superhero character, Birdman, tries to shake his career funk and personal demons by staging a Broadway play. Does the shift from small folks in big situations to larger-than-life figures in a small drama carry the same heft as Inarittu’s earlier work? The answer…kinda.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)
Michael Keatons character, Riggan Thompson, is at a crucial juncture of his acting career. A successful, but soul-crushing run as a superhero named Birdman in a trio of Hollywood action films has left him old, bitter, divorced, and desperate to make a name for himself without a costume or wings. His final gambit is to write/direct/star in a major Broadway play (with his recovering junkie daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, as his personal assistant; and his younger girlfriend, Laura, in a starring role.) He leverages everything he has to get the play made, but things look bleak: with three days to go, the major star is a complete dud. A fortuitous accident levels the poor slob, and one of the lead actresses brings in Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), her boyfriend and a well respected but egotistical theater actor. Every time the show seems to be hitting its stride, calamity strikes. Mike gets drunk during a performance, Sam falls off the wagon and belittles the project, and Riggan gets locked out of the theater in his underwear and has to walk through the audience looking like a homeless person. Fortunately, each outrageous pitfall only makes the show more notorious. The final hurdle is impressing the reviewer for the Times, a woman who loathes Hollywood big-shots slumming on the stage, and who is dead set on torpedoing the show before it even opens.
If this description sounds like the pitch for a Mel Brooks film, you’re not far off from what the trailer for the film was selling: an uproarious satire of Broadway and Hollywood tropes, all suffused with a large does of wink and nod to the film’s premise closely mirroring the career of its star, Keaton. What you actually get is a much smaller production, in terms of bombast and scope. If you expected to see costumed hi-jinx, you’re in for a long wait.
Riggan Thompson the man is not a farce, and neither is his play. In fact, his choice of drama, Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is a perfect metaphor for Birdman the film: small characters in a familiar setting, talking about life and love and the minutiae of everyday life. Rather than a scathing send-up of acting and theater, Inarittu mostly gives us the gritty, sometimes heated, sometimes pathetic, actuality of making a major play. Bad props, missed lines, bruised egos, and shoddy sets are at least as important (or more) to Birdman than major themes of merit, desire, personal glory or scandal.
Mirroring this slice-of-Broadway Life focus is the gorgeous cinematography. The movie is filmed mostly in low angle shots at close range, and edited to appear like one single, continuous take. The effect is a very personal, sometimes invasive feel, as if we are an un-named and un-remarked upon assistant, constantly following the lead characters about their day. We watch as Riggan and his girlfriend share a private conversation about their relationship, only to be interrupted by Sam, who needs clarification on some technical problem. The camera then leaves Riggan as we follow Sam to the roof for a cigarette break, which she shares with Mike, and after a sexually awkward confrontation, we then follow Mike back down to the stage…where he has a tense scene with Riggan. And so it goes. Perfectly orchestrated and seamless, the audience becomes a fly on the wall of three very hectic days of preparing for opening night.
It’s Art…but Will You Like It?
Birdman is beyond a doubt a skillfully rendered, immaculately plotted, and excellently acted product. It is, quite literally, a work of Art. And it is primarily concerned with Art, and the nebulous border at which one can consider any artistic attempt to have attained the status of Art, capital A. Is acting an Art, and is the answer the same if the actor comes from a film background as opposed to a theater background? Does Broadway automatically confer a sense of artistic legitimacy, and Hollywood the opposite? Is that fair? Is it the nature of the experience, or simply an outmoded and snobbish carry-over we still operate under? Inarittu is willing to question quite a few sore spots and taboo assumptions about theater and film, but is reticent about providing any definitive answers. He remains primarily an observer, simply presenting absurdity where he finds it instead of editorializing it. Only at the end do you get a sense that the director possesses strong opinions on the matter, and unfortunately, by this late stage of the game, they feel out of place and jarring, like the film just realized that it had spent too long setting up the joke and was losing it’s audience before the punchline.
In the final accounting, Birdman is an excellent film, one that accomplishes some very wonderful things, both in front of and behind the scenes and I appreciate what an achievement it is…but I have a hard time saying that I LIKED the movie. For all of its cleverness, it can often be quite dull. The film spends most of its time saying very little, and the last bit of the film tries to make up for it by saying too much. I can appreciate a subtle film about the minutiae of the theater. I can enjoy a rollicking satire about an unhinged individual and the shallow bluster of Hollywood in the super hero/Michael Bay era. The sudden transition from the first film to the second film, though, feels like a bit of a cheat, and reduces the impact of either.
Much like last year’s Gravity, I feel like this is an important film, one that really soared technically and artistically, but is also a film that’s chief appeal was novelty. There is a lot to see here, and a lot to think about: when this film is fun, it is a blast…but it is mostly bogged down in splitting hairs and trying to be artistic, where it needs to be bold. I respect both films, but I seriously doubt that I will ever watch either a second time.