October 27, 2014

Review: The Unexpected Pretension of 'Birdman'

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige."
Alejandro González Iñárritu Michael Keaton | Birdman

Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) has until now told very serious, usually interlocking, stories about grief and the cyclical nature of humanity without much joy or humour. In his latest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a departure for the director, Iñárritu partly sheds his past filmography's style while taking on the explicit criticism of it head on with an assertive attempt at satirical humour.

Unfortunately, the most interesting part of Birdman is its breathless style, shot to appear as almost entirely one unbroken, single long take executed spectacularly by Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. This wondrous yet gimmicky construct only heightens the hollow pretension of the entire endeavour as it balances some uniformly fine performances of both sharply satirical and deadly serious tones. It's too bad the pretension behind the filmmaking wastes its talent all-around to tiredly mock easy targets of popular culture with some lazy, meta commentary.

Former Batman actor Michael Keaton riffs and loses himself in a starring role partially mimicking his own career as Riggan Thomson, an aging,  "serious" actor looking to reboot his stalling career by building a Broadway stage play (a vanity project adapted from the Raymond Carver short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love") after being most famously known for playing the titular superhero in a series of movies twenty years earlier. It's a showcase of his range of acting skills, using his talents to the fullest as we follow him closely on the verge of a mental breakdown over a week in and out of the St. James Theatre on Broadway in New York City.

It's really Edward Norton, playing by far the most intelligent character, as an exaggerated, thinly veiled analogue for his real-life persona dialled up to ridiculous lengths as a difficult, unpredictable yet talented method actor who comes in to save Thomson's play. His manic energy propels most of the scenes he's in and invigorates the latter half of the film as we get accustomed to the film's troupes and visual style.

Michael Keaton | Birdman

The rest of the cast is admirable and remarkably engaging with Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Andrea Riseborough, all taking turns at cutting Keaton's Thomson (and in turn, the audience) down in size for his questionable motives. It's hard not to notice the fantastic and thankless work of Emma Stone (or her big, beautiful eyes, rather, filmed gorgeously) as Riggan's daughter fresh out of rehab. Her presence and natural chemistry with the other characters grounds the fantastical tone and make us forget about the unnatural, knowing camerawork constantly exacerbated by a drum heavy, drama heightening score by Antonio Sanchez.

What sinks the film as it goes on and on is its lack of subtext and false allusions about its subject matter. Iñárritu aims to comment on the current state of cinema, hollowness of Hollywood superhero franchises, film criticism, and the age of social media but fails to fully understand the objects of his commentary. Instead, the scripting falls in on itself with long speeches about the perils of achieving artistic satisfaction or commercial success.

What's most disturbing and a nice catch all for the troublingly sophomoric themes behind the entire film is a scene where an important but nasty New York Times theatre critic verbally takes down Riggan and the entirety of the Hollywood machine by promising to eviscerate his play with a bad review even before it opens. It's this kind of toxic misunderstanding about the workings of artistic production that's so misguided and troublesome.

There's no denying Birdman is bold and confident in its audacious, albeit pretentious and not very subtle, experimental filmmaking in how it balances its problematic, self-referential story. Iñárritu proves he's not a sophisticated enough writer or playful director to fully contextualize his lofty ideals, despite wonderful performances built around technically dazzling visuals. Everything is far too literal and theatrical to play completely on point on the screen. The film juggles its objects of satire and mockery from celebrity to any kind of artistic expression clumsily, being more interested in how it tells its story than the story itself.

More | YVArcade / Badass Digest / Cinema Scope / GrantlandThe Dissolve

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