Bursting at the seams with metaphors, themes, and symbolism, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman teeters on the brink of becoming too busy for its own good. This is a film with a lot on its mind, and while it never delivers anything breathtakingly original, it explores interesting thematic material in mesmerizing fashion: cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) shoots the film in a series of long continuous shots stitched together to give the effect that the movie is essentially one long take.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a mostly-forgotten actor famous for playing a superhero twenty years earlier – reminiscent of Keaton’s real history with the Batman franchise. Two decades later, he’s attempting to stage a comeback by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Thomson and his producer (Zach Galifianakis) have sunk most of Thomson’s money into the play, so this is his last shot at regaining the cultural relevance which he so desperately craves. Forced to replace a key cast member one day before previews begin, Thomson brings in Broadway wunderkind Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor who constantly pushes the envelope to find the “truth” in his scenes. Pressure mounts as Thomson juggles a hectic schedule, a relationship with his just-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), his romantic entanglement with a co-star (Andrea Riseborough), the promise of a bad review from a theater critic, and his own insanity as he attempts to complete his journey of self-discovery.
Thomson’s alter-ego – Thomson in a Birdman suit, speaking in a voice that parodies Christian Bale’s guttural Dark Knight vocals – speaks to him throughout the film, representing the hauntingly easy option to return to the superhero suit and bank a huge paycheck. But Iñárritu is disgusted by blockbuster film culture, and while I certainly enjoy my fair share of superhero movies, this film takes a hard stance against them. Depicting superhero films as nothing more than empty spectacle and decrying the people who make them as purposely peddling filth to the masses, Birdman raises some strong (if well-worn) points, but its blanket generalizations are slightly troubling. The film presents its viewpoints as the definitive end-all be-all statement about superhero movie culture without leaving open the possibility that there could be any intelligence found in them at all. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a prescient film about the national surveillance state, comes to mind as an example from just this year that disproves this notion.)
Similarly, Birdman gets into some troubling territory with the confrontation between Thomson and a theater critic, falling into the classic “those who can’t do, criticize” argument that any critic has likely heard dozens of times. For the record, the idea that someone becomes a film critic because they’re a failed filmmaker is a fallacy; the art of criticism and the art of filmmaking are two separate things, and while an understanding of the process by which films are made is undeniably helpful in critiquing and analyzing the final product, a background as a director is not a requirement to discuss the merits and flaws in a piece of art. I understand the sentiments of not liking how blockbuster culture is permeating our society and thinking that critics are nothing more than people who sneer down their noses at those who take considerable creative chances, but to explore these topics in a way that leaves no room for discussion seems misguided.
Thematically, Birdman covers some of the same ground as Damien Chazelle’s excellent musical drama Whiplash, exploring ideas of legacy, relevance in the face of looming obscurity, and the sacrifices necessary to attain greatness in art. It explicitly equates love with human existence, and riffs on the concept of social media (which allows people to acknowledge one’s existence) as an outlet for feeling fulfilled. The film, like the ever-moving camera, swoops from one theme to the next inside a claustrophobic theater, occasionally bursting through the front doors or onto the roof to capture a bit of New York City and a whole lot of Thomson’s unstable mental condition (we see fireballs, giant robo-birds, and flight sequences through Thomson’s unreliable eyes).
Keaton is great in the lead role, and Norton practically steals the film in one of the most fun supporting parts we’ve seen from him in years. The women don’t fare as well because they aren’t given as much to do (although Emma Stone’s performance is a highlight), and even though there were a handful of elements I didn’t particularly care for, Birdman is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a dark, humorous send-up of show biz that will hopefully send Michael Keaton soaring toward excellent roles again. Until next time…
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