BIRDMAN Movie Review: Slightly Less Subtle Than A Superhero Brawl

Michael Keaton riffs on being Batman in a movie that wants you to know it's quite clever.

There’s an interesting argument that Birdman is having with itself, an argument about acting versus celebrity, about fame versus art, about truth in performance versus lies in life, but the argument would probably be better served in some kind of essay. In fact Birdman feels like it was adapted from an essay, in that it’s a movie where characters walk around declaring who they are, what they represent and what the movie is about. It’s as if the gaggle of writers on the movie (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo) decided that they didn’t have time for subtext and just made all of that stuff the actual text.

The movie’s central gimmick is that it’s told using the appearance of one long, uninterrupted take. It’s an interesting gimmick in this case because the film makes no bones about being set in real time - it takes place over the course of a week - and because it cheats its own geography in fascinating ways. But it’s also a pointless gimmick; for the first act, which is largely real-time-ish backstage drama, it works and it heightens the sense of urgency of doing a live production. But once that’s done the gimmick is just there because it’s there, and it doesn’t even work within the context of the movie - we’re seeing the movie subjectively through the eyes of Riggan Thomas, a superhero movie star slowly breaking down as he tries to make good on Broadway, but the POV breaks away from his so often that the subjectivity is lost. Unless, of course, the whole movie is a delusion of some sort, including scenes taking place around him, but that’s simply unsatisfying on any dramatic level.

The single take gimmick is the heart of what’s wrong with Birdman - it’s cool, it’s catchy, it’s well done, it’s screamingly obvious and eventually pointless. Cool, you were able to make this film look like the camera is always on, but all you were able to do with that is draw a lot of attention to the technique itself. I’m not against flashy technique - we need more of it, especially as our biggest movies look more and more like TV shows - but I do like when the technique has a dramatic or thematic reasoning behind it. In the end Birdman is as bombastically obvious as the superhero movies it’s lampooning.

Michael Keaton is fine as Riggan Thomson, riffing on his own work as Batman. But he’s not great, and as the central performer in a movie where everybody’s going on and on about performance and truth he never gives a fully honest moment. Fellow ex-superhero Edward Norton fares better, playing a heightened version of himself, but even he’s always behind a veneer of phoniness. The only actor giving a performance in this movie that would stand up to the movie’s own standards of acting is Emma Stone; her eyes so big I sometimes wondered if they had been CGI augmented, Stone is raw and alive on screen, infusing a painfully stock character (the junkie daughter of the movie star who ends up in an affair with an older man) with true life and immediacy.

Here’s the problem with writing that paragraph: I’m not entirely sure how serious Birdman is being with these performances. The film is, on many levels, a dark satire of the arts, and it’s the kind of satire where it’s never quite clear if things are meant to be hinky or bad or off. There’s a speech Keaton gives at the end to his ex-wife that is absolutely cringe-worthy in its maudlin sentiment… but is that supposed to be hilariously maudlin? Is this Riggan being unable to be a human being and putting on a poorly-written act? Or is this a serious moment intended to be emotional? I couldn’t quite tell.

Part of the problem is context; there are a lot of things you can say about Alejandro González Iñárritu as a filmmaker, but you’d probably never say he’s playful. He’s often thuddingly serious and literal, which is why I find all of his movies to be absolute fucking chores. Babel is like a parody of a big, serious movie, and the Keaton speech would be right at home in Babel. Has Iñárritu lightened up and seen how silly he is, or is this just more of his Serious Artist stuff? There's definitely more playfulness on display here than I've ever seen from him before.

Birdman is technically excellent, and it’s filled with good performances. But under it all is a script so literal that it has the theater critic character explain to Riggan everything she feels about him, his role in society and her job in one quick speech. It’s so literal that after a sequence where Riggan seems to fly it has to show us a cabbie angry at being stiffed for his fare by the delusional actor. It’s so literal that Norton’s character can only get a boner when he’s on stage and not in bed with a woman and then has him actually explain this to someone else.

But hey, the Birdman suit looks cool.