Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

The trouble with winning an Academy Award for Best Picture is that your movie will forced to live up to an impossibly high set of expectations. Your movie is no longer merely compared to other movies addressing similar themes, or other movies made by the same director, or other movies starring the same lead actor. It's compared to every other film released within the same year, and if your movie isn't the very best of the bunch, it quickly gets slapped with that most dreaded of labels: “Overrated.”

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Or: [The Movie with a Needlessly Convoluted Title]) is, it must be admitted, overrated. It wasn't actually the best film of 2014, nor was it the best-directed or best-written. “Ugh, Birdman,” people will say in disgust, growing irritated as they remember that Boyhood or Selma or The Grand Budapest Hotel or whatever was totally robbed, man. Here's the thing: it isn't Inarritu's fault that people think his movie is better than it is, and the movie doesn't deserve to be dismissed just because a group of voters liked it too much. It deserves to be dismissed because it isn't good.

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton, Batman) is a washed-up Hollywood superstar looking to make a comeback. He's best-known for playing the iconic superhero Birdman in three different films, but has now set his sights on a more ambitious and artistically challenging project: directing and starring in his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Unfortunately, a last-minute emergency leaves Riggan without a male co-star a mere two days before the first scheduled preview.

Thankfully, the show's lead actress (Naomi Watts, King Kong) has a solution: her boyfriend is critically-acclaimed stage and screen actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, Primal Fear), and he just so happens to be available to step in. The show's producer (Zach Galifianakis, The Hangover) is thrilled by this turn of events, but Mike may be more trouble than he's worth. He's a brilliant actor, but also an incredibly temperamental one prone to unexpected onstage rants, inappropriate backstage behavior and barely tolerable method actor self-indulgence.

Riggan finds himself trapped in a spiral of self-doubt and paranoia, particularly after hearing that the infamously ruthless New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan, Le Week-End) will be attending the opening night performance. He begins hearing the voice of Birdman in his head; a growling devil on his shoulder reminding him of how important he used to be and how much he's lost. “How did we end up here?” the voice sighs.

The film Birdman reminds me of more than any other is Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, which told the story of a ballerina entering a mental tailspin as she prepared for the biggest performance of her life. In that movie, her mental state was reflected by vivid hallucinations, as she imagined herself developing wings and webbed feet. This movie features similarly hallucinatory scenes in which Riggan imagines himself developing superpowers. First, it's just small stuff: making a light fixture rattle or turning off a television with his fingers. By the third act, he's soaring through the air like Superman. There are numerous indications that this is all just a fantasy, but intriguingly, there are just as many indications that it isn't. The symbolism Inarritu employs is so obvious and on-the-nose (if you'll pardon the expression) that we're startled to realize it might not be symbolic at all.

That ambiguity is one of the film's better qualities (and it maintains that ambiguity all the way through its much-debated ending), but Birdman lacks Black Swan's theatrical commitment to its ideas. The bulk of the film is designed to look as if it's all happening in one long, unbroken shot (the cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki, perhaps the most-qualified candidate to handle such a task), which Inarritu felt would effectively immerse the audience in the inescapable reality/unreality of Riggan's life. Unfortunately, the movie hampers that immersion by maintaining a certain level of quizzical detachment from its subject and constantly drawing attention to its own artifice. The cinematography is a marvel from a technical perspective, but it ultimately feels like a showy gimmick. The Antonio Sanchez drum score is distracting, alternately skittering and pounding away in the background to underscore the nervous rhythm of Riggan's life but giving way to soaring classical music during the brief fantasy sequences. An interesting idea on paper, but exasperating in execution.

Late in the movie, Birdman transforms from a voice in Riggan's head to a physical presence walking alongside him. This scene – in which the clean-shaven, mask-sporting superhero gives the weathered, goateed actor a profanity-laden motivational speech – is as good as the rest of the movie ought to be. Yes, Birdman's cynical rant about modern blockbusters is on the condescending side, but it's also pretty on-point: “Give the people what they want... old-fashioned apocalyptic porn.” The scene has a feverish audacity too much of Birdman lacks. The major decision Riggan makes in the film's climax ought to be an operatic crescendo, but Inarritu seems hesitant about giving the moment real dramatic impact. Instead, the movie invites us to raise an eyebrow as we watch the reaction the moment generates. The scene makes a worthwhile point - Great Art can be as shamelessly manipulative as crass mainstream entertainment - but the sterility of the presentation dampens the power of the idea.

Regardless of the film's inconsistency, it must be said that Michael Keaton is never less than terrific. Yes, it's a performance that draws heavily on his own past (Keaton famously walked away from the Batman franchise for artistic reasons and quickly proceeded to fade from the spotlight), but that's hardly the only reason he was a perfect choice. Watching the movie a second time, I was struck by how generous Keaton's performance as Riggan is: he's a man who has struggled to assert himself artistically, and he recedes into the background when dealing with a big presence like Mike Shiner. Keaton is doing smart, subtle work, but he leaves plenty of space for his co-stars to wander in and chew up scenery. The actor isn't afraid to make himself appear impotent or foolish (sometimes both, as in the scene where he delivers a drunken rant to Tabitha Dickinson), and he seems genuinely human as a result. Given the arc of his career, it seems oddly fitting that Keaton's big comeback role would be in a movie that really isn't nearly as good as his performance.

Let's give some credit to Edward Norton, too, who enthusiastically plays on his own prickly public image to make Mike Shiner a talented asshole of the first order. Sure, it's arguably a less challenging role than Keaton's, but it nonetheless offers a reminder of Norton's considerable dramatic abilities and of his impeccable comic instincts (see his work in Death to Smoochy, Leaves of Grass and Moonrise Kingdom as further evidence of the latter). I also liked Galifianakis as the perpetually harried producer, his eyes bulging and his jaw dropping as he's asked to deal with one calamity after another.

Unfortunately, the female characters aren't nearly as well-handled (I suppose it's worth noting that the screenplay was written by four men). I've liked Emma Stone in nearly everything I've seen her in, but she struggles to do much with the role of Riggan's daughter, a recovering drug addict who maintains a somewhat contentious relationship with her father. She's saddled with a lot of the film's clunkiest dialogue, and is forced to deliver a painfully forced speech on her father's failure to understand social media: “You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page!” Lindsay Duncan's character is familiar stereotype: the bitter, lonely, hateful critic who writes negative reviews out of pure spite for artists she deems unworthy. Naomi Watts is wasted on an underwritten role, and the same complaint applies to Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion), who plays Riggan's girlfriend. There's exactly one scene in the movie featuring a conversation between two female characters, and it quickly leads to both of them engaging in an impulsive makeout session (I suppose it's worth noting once again that the screenplay was written by four men). Exception to the rule: Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), who does lovely work in a small supporting performance as Riggan's cautiously sympathetic ex-wife.

Birdman is rarely a dull watch, but it's hard to stop thinking about the seemingly endless ways it could have been better. What if the scenes from Riggan's supposedly great play actually felt like scenes from a great play instead of something from a self-indulgent bore? What if Inarritu dropped all of the self-aware schtick ? What if the bulk of the dialogue sounded like real conversations between human beings? I wanted to like this movie, because it's an ambitious, original project that offers a juicy leading role to one of our most underappreciated actors. There are moments I do like, which is inevitable given the talent involved. Alas, Birdman is often just as shallow and derivative as the blockbusters it sneeringly dismisses. "Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige," Mike Shiner declares. Sure, but prestige is the spoiled little sibling of honesty.


Birdman Poster

Birdman

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 2014