Birdman Falls Flat

Birdman is an artistic, intellectual film that does no artistic or intellectual work. It’s an outline, a sketch, a suggestion of an idea, and that idea isn’t even original. Did you know that some actors are egomaniacs? Did you know that theater and film are different? Did you know that social media is a thing that exists? Did you know that some people look down on super hero action flicks? Did you know that life is depressing sometimes and happy some other times? Did you know that Michael Keaton once played Batman?

Great. Then there’s no need for you to see this movie.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a middle-aged actor who used to portray Birdman, a dark and moody superhero, in a series of blockbuster movies. Now facing irrelevance, Riggan stages a Broadway show—acting as writer, director, and lead—in an attempt to redefine his career. The film takes place in the tension-fraught days leading up to the play’s premiere, as Riggan struggles with difficult actors, family issues, and his own steadily-declining mental state. The cast of characters around Riggan—notably his method-acting co-star Mike (Edward Norton) and his troubled, recovering-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone)—push him close to his breaking point, but it is Riggan’s own psyche, which he hears in his head as the voice of Birdman, that threatens to push him over the edge.

The premise is intriguing, but it goes precisely nowhere. Instead of embarking on an exploration of fame and greed, ego and art, sex and family, the film points to these ideas and then proudly calls it a day. The characters are all blatant types: Norton’s Mike is the classic self-centered, pompous “artist,” Stone’s Sam is sufficiently moody and bitter to cause trouble for her father, and even Riggan himself is a character you’ve seen a million times before. He used to be famous, now he’s not so famous, and he wants to be famous again. Also he’s depressed probably. The actors handle their roles admirably, however. Norton is particularly fun to watch be brutally cruel, easily stealing every one of his scenes. Zach Galifianakis also stands out as Jake, Riggan’s friend and producer, a frantic character with little of Galifianakis’s usual buffoonery; instead he draws laughs from his desperate attempts to keep the collapsing show from imploding entirely. But there’s little to these characters to make them compelling on their own, no matter how well acted they are. They’re ideas, not humans.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using stock characters in a film; employed carefully, these characters can offer a great way to study and deconstruct personality types. But Birdman does none of the work to comment on its characters and forms no cohesive argument. The film relentlessly asserts that it has a valuable message, but the actual content of that message is nowhere to be found. This problem becomes unfortunately clear in the scenes where the film attempts to tackle pop culture. Writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu constantly misrepresents and misunderstands the modern world. There’s an extended sequence where Riggan fantasizes about starring in an action movie again, but the fantasy is limited to explosions and tanks and gunfire. If you’ve seen an action movie in the past decade, particularly a Marvel movie or a Christopher Nolan film, you know that blockbuster movies can be exciting while also having strong plots, characters, and themes. But this variety doesn’t fit within Iñárritu’s preconceived box, so he ignores it.

The same goes for the film’s treatment of social media. Despite making Emma Stone mention followers and retweets umpteen times, the movie doesn’t know how to develop any of it into an argument, and it feels like Iñárritu doesn’t actually know what they are. The only time the film seems at all honest and truthful is during the theater sequences. Twisting halls cluttered with costumes and props, stage managers desperately trying to get actors into places, last-minute disasters cropping up from everywhere—anyone who has worked on a show has seen these things. Birdman brings this world to life visually, while its inaccurate depiction of more modern media is flat and lifeless.

Birdman also does some interesting things with cinematography, but it’s an endeavor that, like most of Birdman’s interesting endeavors, doesn’t amount to much. The color palate is suitably dim, and the drum-heavy score complements the mood. But the star of the show is the camera work, which presents the entire film as a single, unbroken take, all of the cuts hidden in transitions as the lens moves from place to place. It’s a risky choice, and from a technical standpoint it is executed remarkably well, but artistically it’s more distracting than engaging. Once you notice that the picture isn’t visibly cutting, it becomes hard to pay attention to anything else; you’ll be focusing on camera work, trying to spot where the cuts were hidden, instead of paying attention to the story. The camera also forces the staging into corners, and since the camera cannot cut between characters it is forced to dwell idly one person’s face. There’s a reason directors and editors cut; cutting makes scenes and conversations fresh and engaging. Without that ability, Birdman is forced to resort almost exclusively to tight close ups and long, drawn out monologues. Any benefit of the unique style is lost as the film becomes visually boring.

Perhaps the problems with its cinematography are characteristic of Birdman as a whole. The film keeps coming up with concepts, things it wants to tackle, but it never seems quite able to pull it off. It’s a black comedy that’s not that dark and not that funny. It’s limited by its own lofty ambitions to such a severe degree that it ends up being genuinely bad. Characters and plot lines are dropped as rapidly as they’re introduced, their stories never to be resolved. A cohesive argument about anything never gets a chance to develop. The messages it leaves us with are uninteresting and tired when not downright false. Birdman might have started as a good idea for a movie, but it is not a good movie. Your two hours would be better spent re-watching The Dark Knight.

Grade: C+      A would-be interesting movie with nothing interesting to say