Birdman is intriguing, provocative and full of ideas. It’s a movie I’ve thought a great deal about in the two days since I saw it. And yet, it’s a movie I’m reticent to embrace. It’s easy to admire but tough to love. In fact, I suffered a minor bout of writer’s block just attempting writing this review. I haven’t had feelings this complex over a movie since Spike Jonze’s Her (a movie I now love but didn’t in my initial review).
What makes the latest from Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel)easy to appreciate is the performances, which are excellent across the board. This is even more impressive because the characters the performers are playing are, in most cases, vain and unlikeable. What makes the movie tough to love is that some of the movie’s technique is draining and its messages a little too on-the-nose. Then again, Birdman is essentially a satire of actors and the current state of the entertainment industry (especially superhero movies), so should it be punished for doing what it intends to do? For example, Birdman is an art-house movie but it is pitched at the level of a blockbuster and is, in fact, tries harder than most Marvel movies, which are a little more laid back. Was that intentional?
The plot in brief: A washed-up actor (Michael Keaton), known for playing the superhero Birdman, aims for the admiration and respect he’s always wanted by mounting a Broadway play which he is writing, directing and playing the lead. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and self-doubt as well as fellow cast members and crew.
Some of the movie did not work for me, namely the technique. At times, it feels similar to someone telling you a fascinating story in the douchiest way possible. Birdman is shot to approximate that the movie is filmed in one continuous take, which lends immediacy and vitality to the proceedings but can be fucking exhausting. I was honestly worn out at the 30 minute mark and had to regroup. On top of the photography, certain elements (such as the drum heavy score) call attention to themselves. In fact, there’s a shot where we think we’re listening to the score and the director cuts to show us street drummers are the ones actually drumming the score. It might be cute to some, but to me that’s a show-offy move that makes me appreciate the director less. I also think there’s a leaden speech midway through the movie which is intended as a takedown of critics (because they risk nothing, unlike actors) which is so short-sighted it’s insulting. Most critics are critics because they want to champion movies and filmmakers to the general public and not to decimate art. Birdman would not agree...or has at least not thought about that.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m not as down on the superhero movie as I used to be. They’re fun, so who cares? They are not cultural poison, which is what Birdman claims that they are but, whatever, to each their own. I still don’t enjoy Iron Man though.
Yet my reservations about Birdman all melt away when I consider the performances. This is an actor’s movie above all else, and I love actor’s movies. Much of the movie is shot is close-ups, which give an immediacy to the emotions at hand and that’s a brave thing to do with a cast of largely hard characters. If it wasn’t for that lack of separation, I don’t think we would have been able to feel these actors’ performances as much and understand their characters fears, dreams and confusion (e.g. selling out to Hollywood or keeping it real on Broadway). It’s also brave of the performers to send up their real life personas, which they do in Birdman -- and I’m not talking about just Michael Keaton (who is good, btw). I’m talking more specifically about Edward Norton (and his notorious reputation of being difficult on set) and Naomi Watts (and her sometimes mannered performances). Those three actors certainly go out on a limb. Norton, in particular, is sensational and reminds me of why I once thought he was going to be THE next great American actor back in the late '90s. Also worth noting is Emma Stone, who is so freaking charismatic it’s unbelievable. Stone has always been good, but I’ve seen her improving as of late. I am a fan.