Review: “Birdman” is very good but ostentatious
Title: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriter: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo
Principal Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy, Ryan, and Andrea Riseborough
I’ve been sitting here for the better part of an hour trying to come up with a good way of framing my thoughts for Birdman or (The Unexpected Ignorance of Virtue) (or just Birdman for the sake of this review). This might be another moment for me when everyone else sees one thing and I see another. Or maybe not. This is proving to be a difficult review to write, because I’ve been looking forward to Birdman for months and all of the buzz surrounding it has been very positive. I should have known better than to listen to all the hype because just clouds your expectations to the point where I almost wish I could have walked into Birdman without knowing a thing about it.
Birdman is a masterfully and beautifully acted film that is so proud of its own existence that it ends up hurting the movie as a whole.
The film follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up Hollywood actor who was once famous for playing the superhero Birdman. He turned down a fourth movie years ago and is now trying to make a comeback by writing, starring, and directing in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that he financed by refinancing his house. He has the support of his producer, lawyer, and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) while his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) isn’t as enthusiastic since she is fresh out of rehab but still signed on as his assistant. When they need to replace their star quickly, Mike (Edward Norton), a Broadway darling and method actor, steps in and immediately begins to take over the production. As the opening night draws closer a critic threatens to derail the play before it even starts and the pressure begins to push Riggan to the edge.
I’m going to get this out of the way, right away; I liked Birdman quite a bit. In fact a good portion of the movie is Oscar worthy. If there is one thing that really makes this film stand out among the rest, it is the directing. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu decided to shoot the film as if it was one continuous shot despite the story being told over the course of a couple of days. This must have been quite challenging for not only the editing team, but also the actors. It gives the movie a very unique feeling as we watch the camera swing up to the sky to watch the sunrise to show the passage of time, or as we follow a character from a well lit roof down into a dark hallway and the screen momentarily goes dark as if eyes are adjusting to the light. The directing is really the thing that stood out for me. I enjoyed the unique view and how it seemed to shape the performances. I researched the film and the style forced the actors to read up to fifteen pages at a time. Were it shot any other way, I can safely say that every performance in Birdman would have been vastly different.
The performances are another reason that I really did enjoy Birdman for the most part. This is Michael Keaton’s first starring role since The Merry Gentlemen in 1998. It’s also no coincidence that he was also Batman, and the winking nudges about this fourth wall* break are entertaining, if a little annoying. Keaton captures Riggan’s slow descent into madness. We see him moving things as if he really has super powers, and the voice that follows him around is dark and gravelly like Batman. These surreal moments reminded me a lot of Black Swan which, if it was a homage, explained the lesbian kiss that didn’t make any sense in context of the plot. The performance that made me laugh the most was Edward Norton. He’ll probably get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the role, where he is basically playing himself. Norton is a notoriously hard actor to work with and has been known to bulldoze his way into all aspects of a picture. He is so over the top that you can hardly take him seriously, and I’m not sure you’re supposed to.
The ladies are mostly regulated to supporting roles, with Naomi Watts as Lesley, actress and ex-wife of Mike, but I didn’t feel like she had much to do. The scenes that she did have were good, but there wasn’t anything that blew my mind which was a shame. Amy Ryan is Sylvia, Riggan’s ex-wife, but the movie is halfway over before she’s even introduced. Emma Stone is the only woman that really has a role to sink her teeth into. Sam is a pretty interesting character; she’s fresh out of rehab and the perfect embodiment of the ‘child of a movie star’ trope. She’s angry at Riggan for not being there when she was little, and lashes out at him when he catches her with more drugs. Stone will probably get an award nomination for Sam, probably supporting, because this is the type of character and performance that the academy really likes. It’s also worth noting that Keaton, Norton, and Stone have all been in superhero movies, which cannot be a coincidence. It’s another “winking joke” that the movie is far too proud of.
Being too proud really covers what I didn’t like about Birdman. I haven’t seen a movie more proud of its own existence in a long time. The entire running time I honestly could not believe that I was watching something this self important. Birdman is a good movie but it isn’t the second coming like it seems to think it is. The hype also isn’t helping. I know you shouldn’t hold hype against a movie, but in this case I think it’s worth mentioning. I watched other outlets absolutely sing the praises of this movie, hailed it as “perfect” and “brilliant”, and it set up expectations that no movie could meet. This is a very good movie but it’s also Oscar bait (look how many times I’ve mentioned awards in this review) and it’s exactly the type of movie that gets released at this time of year.
It also blew past “the 4th wall” (the invisible wall that separates the real world and media where “breaking it” constitutes addressing or acknowledging the audience directly) five minutes in and didn’t stop there. There were so many jokes that it almost felt like the entire production would stall for a second so Iñárritu could turn to the audience, nudge them with his elbow, and say “get it? Did you get it?” Or when Riggan is lecturing a critic about how to criticize something, I almost felt like he should have turned and looked directly at the camera because it felt like he was telling me how to criticize the movie. I don’t like it when a movie tells me how to do my job. This is going to be a film where someone is going to say that anyone who doesn’t write glowingly positive reviews just “didn’t get it”. If that’s the case then that is a fault of the movie and not of the viewer. If someone needs to explain the message of your film then you are not doing a very good job of presenting it, in my opinion.
There were also little things that I really liked. The running gag of the actual Birdman showing up was entertaining, but if you’re going for that scene when Birdman following Riggans with a giant robot bird, you will be disappointed. There was excellent costume design as well. I really liked the entire Birdman gimmick and I probably would have seen the movie if it was real. The sound design is also fantastic, with a drum beat that goes throughout the entire film. It made everything feel like a punchline, and worked much better than I thought it would. I can see it getting annoying for some people, though. There is a running theme of “Hollywood versus Broadway” that is amusing to watch because it feels very true to life.
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) isn’t nearly the masterpiece that everyone is calling it, but it is an exceptionally well made film with unique direction and great performances. If you adjust your expectations then it’s worth a look.