For almost as long as it has existed, Hollywood has loved making movies about itself.
By Noah Gittell
For almost as long as it has existed, Hollywood has loved making movies about itself. The best of these – from “All About Eve” to “The Player” – play both sides: they gently poke fun at the self-importance of the movies and its stars, while still celebrating the escapism and fantasy that cinema has always provided. “Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is the latest (but certainly not the last) entry in this genre. The film is half personal narrative and half essay on the evils and virtues of the movie industry. While it is not nearly as inventive as it seems at first glance, solid performances and a thoughtful touch will keep you interested.
“Birdman” follows a few impactful days in the life of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up movie star, once famous for playing a superhero but now reduced to producing his own Broadway drama to earn back some credibility. Opening night is less than a week away, but Thompson has his share of problems. There is his pompous, overly-method co-star (Edward Norton); his resentful junkie daughter/assistant (Emma Stone); a nervous, money-grubbing producer (Zack Galifianakis); a possibly pregnant girlfriend who also happens to play his love interest (Andrea Risenborough); and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a power-mad theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who hates Thompson for his association with Hollywood and is intent on bringing down the curtain on his career. If this minefield of disgruntled associates were not enough, Thompson is also either losing his mind or developing actual superpowers; when we first meet him, he is levitating two feet off the ground, and he is constantly contending with a persuasive voice in his head that urges him to go back to playing superheroes.
It is a lot to juggle, and director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is only partially up to the challenge. Subplots come and go, and tones shift abruptly. But Innaritu creates a sense of continuity in an original way: The entire film appears as if shot in one long, shaky, single take (although there many hidden cuts), and the result is intoxicating. It never lets the viewer escape, and it ensures that even when the story lags, our attention never does.
But this approach also has its drawbacks. Cuts are the language of cinema and the film’s long, single take refuses to give the audience any perspective on its events. It almost seems as if Innaritu employed this technique to mask the film’s surprisingly conventional themes. The story of a down-on-his-luck actor grappling with the industry is not new, but watching the indie aesthetic and powerful performances of “Birdman,” it often feels that way.
Yes, it is the cast that most often saves “Birdman” from itself. Norton is a standout, giving the funniest and most magnetic performance of his career, but he disappears from the second half of the film. As such, “Birdman” belongs to Michael Keaton, who appears in nearly every scene. Keaton never received enough credit for his range early in his career, but he brings it all to the role of Riggan Thompson. He plays funny (a scene in which he gets locked out of the theater in his underwear is one of the film’s best), angry (a cathartic tirade against the theater critic), and tragic (his relationship with his daughter takes on a doomed urgency); and Keaton straddles the line between ironic detachment and emotional desperation throughout.
There are moments when his casting, however, is a little too on-the-nose; the meta-commentary of using an actor famous for playing a superhero (Keaton appeared in two “Batman” movies in the late ’80s and early ’90s) is too clever by half. Is this a film or an essay? How much of Keaton’s real-life experience is he drawing on? Would it have worked with someone else in the lead? These are not the type of questions a viewer should be asking himself during the film, but the casting and Innaritu’s narrow focus on the world of show business leaves you searching for answers.
“Birdman” may just be a film for the ultimate niche demographic: people in show business. The story of an actor searching for credibility might play like gangbusters in New York and Los Angeles, but it has little to offer to those people who are on the other end of our celebrity culture. Ultimately, it registers as a disappointingly minor work, albeit one that is so sure of its own profundity it can almost convince us, too.
My rating: Put it on your queue