I was real amped up to see Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I had zero idea what it was about and had only seen the poster and flashes of the trailer — but I was convinced it would be brilliant from all the critical acclaim and award nominations. Even word-of-mouth reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with only one claim of apparent “pretentiousness.”
And so it saddens me to say I found Birdman a relative disappointment. It’s indeed a remarkable film that deserves the accolades — whether it is the stylish and complex direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the worthy Oscar-nominated performances of Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton, or the ridiculously impressive script (co-written by Iñárritu) — but the totality of the viewing experience felt ultimately hollow. It’s a technically amazing work of art that didn’t connect with me at a deeper level for whatever reason.
Birdman is a coal-black comedy; a filmmakers’ film for Hollywood and Broadway insiders. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former Hollywood star who once found fame as the masked superhero Birdman but now finds himself fading into obscurity in the internet age. To regain relevance and self-respect, he writes, directs and produces an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story — with himself in the lead role, of course — on Broadway. That’s the core of the film, though there are always subplots spiralling around him, from his feisty rehab-returned daughter (Emma Stone) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan) to his undermining new star recruit (Edward Norton) and occasional fling (Andrea Riseborough). Also in the all-star cast are Naomi Watts, playing a first-time Broadway performer, a slimmed-down and surprisingly serious Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer, and Lindsay Duncan as a theater critic out to get him. On top of all that, Riggan has his old character Birdman talking in his ear all the time, AND he might have actual superpowers.
It’s a delicious mess of interesting ideas and characters that moves around at neck-breaking pace, but the script and direction of Iñárritu manages to keep Birdman a very tight and controlled experience where everything is by design. One of the most noticeable things about the film is the deliberate lack of cuts. Apart from a few minor exceptions, most of the movie rolls along as though it was filmed in one long continuous take, with the camera moving around from one set piece to another and following one character after another. On the one hand it keeps the pace up and the action fluid without breaks, much like real life, while on the other it provides a nice contrast to the stage production depicted in the film. I was impressed by it (as I was when I saw Gravity the year before) and didn’t find it a distraction, though at times it felt like a decision intended to add to the “wow” factor of the film’s technical superiority as opposed to something that adds substance to the film’s narrative.
The film also weaves multiple ideas and techniques in a clever way by embracing traditional movie cliches — the aging actor’s last hurrah, the rebellious offspring, the egotistical performer trying to steal the limelight, the biased critic, etc — and putting a twist on it. The choice of Michael Keaton as Riggan/Birdman was obviously intentional, given that Keaton hasn’t exactly done much since he played another masked crusader all those years ago, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that Edward Norton was chosen to play an actor with a reputation of being difficult to work with. Yet both guys run with the roles and deliver arguably two of the best male performances of the year to nab well-deserved Oscar nominations.
With all these established names in the cast, it’s probably more difficult for the acting to be poor in this film than for it to be absolutely terrific, and even watching it you get the sense that the actors are having a lot of fun showing off what they can do.
I actually think Birdman is in some ways very similar to The Grand Budapest Hotel (review here), coincidentally another Best Picture nominee leading the Oscars pack with nine nominations. Both critically-acclaimed films are tightly wound and have bold, supremely confident scripts filled with rapid-fire dialogue that will probably be used as examples in screenwriter classes around the world. Both are also clever comedies, though the humour in Birdman is darker and more subtle.
Just like The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, I also found Birdman difficult to form an emotional connection with. In both cases I was in awe of the production — the script, the direction and the acting — and yet I wouldn’t consider either one as a film I loved, a profound experience, or something I would want to watch over and over again. To put it another way — I can point to truly great things about the films rather than point to the films as truly great. The individual components of Birdman are undoubtedly top-class, but the whole came across less than the sum of its parts. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Birdman or was not entertained by it, it’s just that I found myself more impressed by it than being genuinely fond of it.
3.75 stars out of 5