Allow me to explain: I become readily and foolishly frustrated by any movie which I perceive is saying to its audience “Figure me out. Do you have the smarts to understand me? Can you ‘get’ me?”
Birdman, I give up. I don’t “get” you, I couldn’t understand you and, by the end of the movie, I didn’t care whether I could figure you out or not.
I didn’t like Birdman. At all. If you’ve read this review this far, I know you’ve already caught that point. The movie should be admired for much: its performances, its direction, the manner in which it evokes New York City, the emotions it displays and more. I recognize that. It just wasn’t for me.
Birdman is a brilliantly directed film. Alejandro González Iñárritu knows how to make a movie, that much is clear. He creates a world that may-or-may-not exist (because I think the entire movie might all take place in the mind of main character Riggan Thompson, but, guess what? I couldn’t figure out if that was the point or not) but is absolutely seamless. Staging the film to make it appear as if it was one continuous shot was an amazing choice. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen another film attempt this. It was audacious and worked well with the claustrophobic nature of the story. Iñárritu also balances the real world of New York City (and there is a pretty incredible moment staged in Times Square that will make you think “how did he do that?”) with the bizarre world of Riggan Thompson’s mind ably, alternating readily between them. He maintains a fairly regimented approach with this conceit right up to the end of the movie, which I felt violated any internal logic that he’d created, but, again, I am not smart enough to figure this thing out. I am smart enough to say this was an amazingly directed movie that got the most out of its actors.
Michael Keaton, on the road to an award for Best Actor I think, plays Riggan Thompson, a sixty-something actor who starred in two massively successful superhero movies in the 1990s. He’s trying to revitalize his career by staging and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories. Raymond Carver? Wow, this movie must be deep. I wish I understood it! Anyway, Thompson is battling a number of personal demons – his daughter is a recovering drug addict and his personal assistant, his lover reveals she’s pregnant, his ex-wife is hanging around his theater, he’s lost a lead in his play and hired a psychotic for a replacement and he feels that the world is laughing at him. Oh, and he’s hearing the voice and seeing the persona he used to play on screen – Birdman – and Birdman isn’t very nice. Keaton, whom I’ve always loved, is very, very good and deserving of his Best Actor nomination. He is the center of the film, present in almost every scene. If we don’t care about him as he falls to pieces, there is no movie at all. We do care about him and that’s a credit to the actor because the character is all-over-the-place. Is he dreaming? Is he psychotic? Does he have superpowers? Keaton plays all of this well and it’s clear from his performance that Thompson doesn’t really know what’s going on in his own head, either.
Other actors could have played this role, but only Keaton, with his Batman background, bring a meta-level of awareness to the part. He’s perfectly cast.
Emma Stone, as his daughter, and Edward Norton, as the obnoxious and, potentially, dangerous actor that Thompson hires to replace his lost lead are very good as well. Both are nominated for Oscars, and they should be. Stone is broken and angry and vulnerable throughout the movie and I got senses, at various times, that she was going to be Thompson’s salvation. Norton is crazy and macho and incredibly self-important (perhaps, Keaton-like, playing upon his own real-life persona) and his scenes with Keaton really crackle. Zach Galifinakis is on hand and more than competent in a role that asks him to tone down the zaniness we’ve come to expect from him and Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts and Andrea Risenborough acquit themselves well, too. Clearly Iñárritu can bring out the best in his casts.
So, with great direction and great performances, what didn’t I like? Everything else. I knew what type of movie this was and I tried to follow it. I tried to be prepared for a certain level of pretension (check!), for unlikable characters in unpleasant situations (check!) and for an ending that would be anything but uplifting (check!… er… wait, was it uplifting?!?). But I found Birdman to be an incredibly well made, well acted morass which said “figure out my message – it’s a GOOD one!”
I couldn’t figure out the message. Between monologues about the meaning of life and the National Geographic shots I never figured out, I lost interest in trying… and this was before the ending which I found utterly confounding.
Birdman is a good movie. It’s simply not for me.
BIRDMAN receives TWO GROWLING INSULTS out of a possible FIVE.