I had high hopes for Birdman, coming as it does with a well-known director (Alejandro Iñárritu, of 21 Grams and Babel), a first-rate cast (Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone, among others) and a premise that really interests me: a formerly successful, aging movie star questioning the career and life choices he’s made.
In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays the former star of an action movie franchise featuring the titular character, who tries to stage a career comeback by starring in, directing and producing a play based on the book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by the well-known writer Raymond Carver. During previews, one of the actors in the play’s cast is injured by a stage light and is replaced by Edward Norton’s character, a somewhat pompous, overly serious theater actor. The play appears headed for disaster when a theater critic for a New York Times-like newspaper threatens to “kill” the play. But then there’s a last-minute plot twist involving social media that turns the play into an unexpected hit.
The acting here is good (particularly a low-key, slimmed-down Zach Galafinakis as Michael Keaton’s lawyer), but I was distracted by such things as the camera work and the actor’s appearances (“Why is the skin around Michael Keaton’s ears so pulled back? Did he have a face lift?” “Edward Norton has a hot ass!” “Emma Stone has a beautiful face and her eyes are really green!”). The film appears to have been shot in one continuous take. I realize this is a major technical achievement, but it distances the audience from the movie, and even people who aren’t film school graduates might sense that there’s something “wrong.” Also, weird events happen throughout the movie for no apparent reason. (Keaton has the ability to move objects just by pointing at them, a drummer mysteriously appears in various places playing the movie’s percussive soundtrack, a homeless-looking man appears on the street reciting Shakespeare). I don’t know if Iñárritu is trying to create an atmosphere of “magical realism,” but this is distracting, too. We’re led to believe the film is taking place in the “real world,” not the world of superheroes, where we’re used to people flying around. Although Keaton’s Birdman character is referenced throughout the film, he’s not really a part of the main action. He mainly appears as a voiceover, narrating Keaton’s inner doubts.
The screenplay is also a weird mixture of high-brow and low-brow, dropping names like Roland Barthes while at the same time indulging in adolescent sexual humor.
Birdman comes with a critic-proof device: the character of the aforementioned theater critic about whom several digs are made of the “those who can’t do criticize” variety. That’s a bit disingenuous. Who goes to a movie (or in the case of this movie, a play) not wanting to like it?
Perhaps what the makers of this movie didn’t consider is that some people love the art form they’re critiquing so much that they’re truly disappointed when something doesn’t live up to their expectations.