Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan
Every trip to the cinema is a gamble. You can read reviews for hours and triple-check Rotten Tomatoes but the fact is you can still be left feeling you’ve watched a completely different film. These are my exact sentiments on Birdman; I went in expecting one thing and thanks to all the talk of critical acclaim I walked away confused, and if you ever see it you’ll know it’s just the kind of film to polarise its audience.
I’ll try and keep this short, I’m struggling to compose my thoughts as this was one confusing two-hour experience. The state of the human mind is a maze, very difficult to depict on-screen, and while some are able to find their way in and out effortlessly others become hopelessly lost from the get-go. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) is as confusing as the title suggests, and it’s amazing to think that most thought of this as a successful excursion into the maze, while I saw it differently and dudette saw it as something else. Afterwards we discussed and dissected, ultimately coming to the agreement we hadn’t watched the same film.
Despite seeing the same story told in the same manner everybody’s experience differs regardless of what the majority might say and because of that there’s really no right or wrong when it comes to interpretation. Birdman is just one of those films. That’s the beauty of cinema.
Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton) is having a very long bad day, since 1992 in fact, and it’s getting worse. There’s a voice inside his head telling him he’s a has-been, so you can imagine the state he’s in. He’s chosen to deal with it by spreading his creative wings with the power of his mind, but no matter how hard he tries reality keeps seeping back in to make his life even worse.
The film begins and finishes without ever picking up or slowing down during Riggin’s attempt to reinvent himself by writing, directing, and starring in his own Broadway play. It quickly establishes Riggin’s detachment with reality, first by having him literally float in his tighty whities and later having him claim responsibility for an accident on-set he had nothing to do with. This leads to the hiring of the notoriously painful method-actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who makes a cheeky entrance and schools Riggin on acting in one of the very few bright spots of the film. In between there are conversations with Jake (Zach Galifianakis) on the state of things and some other people whose lines I can’t even remember while an ever-present invisible cameraman catches every little thing that goes on in one long shot, disregarding interest or relevance. This is meant to highlight Riggin’s struggles with his self-loathing, but he wasn’t the only one struggling…
If I had known I would’ve savoured the brilliant rehearsal scene between Riggin and Mike as I thought they were to come thick and fast, but it was not to be. The film tries to make up for the lacklustre dialogue with teases of potential greatness, such as the volatile outburst from Sam Thomson (Emma Stone) used to sum up the point of the film, but outside of these moments it falls back into the same rut. Despite knowing that I was watching some really good performances in an interestingly-shot production I soon became restless in my seat and the worst thing possible happened; I became bored.
I tried my best to stick with it but Riggin’s unrealistic reaction to Mike’s second-act antics, the only thing pulling it along, was just the beginning of the downward spiral. During a preview with Broadway first-timer Lesley (Naomi Watts) Mike stirs up what should be a sexual-harassment lawsuit and she has this pseudo-emotional breakdown, doubting her validity as an actress. Then there’s this irrelevant lesbian make-out scene and none of this is mentioned again. Meanwhile Mike continues to run afoul of Riggin and ends up sporting a black eye for his troubles, and apart from a brief moment in which Riggin is easily convinced otherwise by Jake nobody ever talks of firing this guy. Riggin’s whole world is falling apart around him, and so is this film.
Then things just get weird. This voice that’s been ringing in Riggin’s head finally appears, all the supporting cast are stripped back to nothing and the film focusses entirely on Riggin as he falls into a pit of despair, gets drunk and hallucinates in New York City. There are moments which question whether it’s all real or not but they’re never answered, and by this point I didn’t really care anymore. It’d lost me. In another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of entertainment Riggin finds himself stuck in Times Square in his underwear, but it comes off the back of another unrealistic reaction to seeing his daughter in a scene that would make any father insanely angry. Oh, and that little sub-plot is nothing more than screen filler and effects nothing.
The last coherent moment this film has is when Riggin is dealt some truth by the steely theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a truth he deals right back at her. But again, this is nothing more than a way to sum up the film; he’s a washed-up celebrity looking for acting credibility. Between the unexplored and unresolved issues of schizophrenia, telekinesis, lawsuits, pregnancy, drug-addiction and erectile dysfunction (all the makings of a brilliant piece of work) it would’ve been nice to see the third act expand on this. Unfortunately the script just couldn’t find the time.
Riggin’s literally hits the stage by ending his performance with a bang. He awakens in hospital having conquered his demons by getting a nose job and becoming popular and leaves Birdman on the toilet while he takes flight once more.
Riggin Thomson really needs to sort out his severe mental issues. He converses with an unseen masked man, vividly hallucinates and nearly kills himself while struggling with a past involving alcohol dependency and a damaged relationship with his daughter. It has the makings of a brilliant character arc, too bad we didn’t get to see it.
When it came to casting the film-makers blended real events with fiction. Riggin is a man whose star faded after he gave up a blockbuster superhero role, which sounds much like the man portraying him. I’ve only ever dabbled in Michael Keaton’s work but I’ve always had an impression and after seeing him in what is supposedly his greatest performance I can say I know why I have that impression. I won’t be bad-mouthing him as I don’t want to stoop to such a level, but apart from a couple of brief moments where he bounces off Edward Norton I don’t see what the big deal is. I don’t get the hype surrounding this nor his award nominations.
This merging of the big screen and the real world continues with Norton, a method actor who’s hard to work with. Mike shiner is also a method actor who’s hard to work with and seemingly can’t be dismissed despite his best efforts. Having said that there is nothing wrong with this approach to casting and characterisation, and Norton’s performance is one of the reasons to go see this film. From the moment he appears he commands screen presence and pretty much school’s everyone on acting. Mike can be so arrogant and disruptive in one scene and in another you feel for him, and it’s always because of the range Norton brings to the role. If anyone deserves some statues on their mantle it’s him.
Emma Stone’s Sam Thomson is horrible to her father, a smart-arse to others and a former drug addict or something (they never go into it). There are only two substantial moments with her, but they’re glossed over minutes later. That’s all there is to say, and she still has far more development than most of the other characters. I give Emma credit because she made it work, and if she too receives kudos for her efforts in the form of an award I will be content.
Then there’s the rest. Zack Galifianakis could have an Oscar nomination himself had he been given something decent to work with, Naomi Watts appears sporadically while Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan have so little screen time they can’t offer us anything. I must say I don’t blame these people as most of the performances were good, but when you’ve got nothing to work with you’ve got nothing to work with. No amount of talent can cover that up.
The Making Of
It’s the experimentation that made we want to see this one, but it’s a tightrope and when it fails it falls flat on its face. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu loves spreading his artistic wings and he’s done so here by presenting it as if were one single shot, and to an extent it works because Emmanuel Lubzeki’s cinematography is one of the few bright spots, but it’s also a hindrance. Depicting events in real-time with a couple of time-lapses and very few cuts isn’t a bad idea but a thirty-second long shot of a hallway in which nothing happens is truly terrible. They somehow manage to over-complicate a simply concept and turn it into a gimmick, making me well aware I’m watching a film.
Speaking of nothing happening, the plot is so paper thin I had to fall back on characterisation and dialogue to pull the film and myself along. Unfortunately the conversation so dull I tuned out, the shallow characters left me unwilling to take any notice of what was going on and open-ended sub plots had me wanting more. The script never gave me a reason to get involved; the characters may have felt emotion but it never translated to emotional investment on my behalf. On top of that I had those swinging drums beating in my head long after I’d left the cinema, and the random inserts of classical music were beyond annoying. Before long I found myself actually waiting for the film to end just so I could get my money’s worth and leave.
I know I’ve given this some rough treatment so you’ll probably be scratching your head at the score I’m giving it. Like I said, I had a lot of trouble piecing it all together so I’ve decided to call it how I see it. But the thing is in no way do I see Birdman as a bad film because I did enjoy the concept, the camerawork and the acting: I just didn’t get everything else. Others will see it clearly for what it is, chances are they’re the people who have championed it, and if I sat and watched it again I could probably see more good in it and understand where all the love is coming from. But there are just some films you can’t get into of can’t wrap your head around. They’re just not for you. For me that’s Birdman.
5 of 10