Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough
screenplay Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
by Walter Chaw A benighted, gangly thing midway between a mid-life crisis Black Swan and the Noises Off version of Brazil, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is the lonesome yawp of a limited, one-trick-pony given now to defensiveness and self-consciousness. Assailing the tale of a washed-up former mega-star of superhero blockbusters, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton, check), who's trying to gain a measure of self-respect on Broadway in a Raymond Carver adaptation he wrote, directed, and is starring in, the picture doesn't do anything it doesn't warn us about first and then apologize for after. It covers the three preview performances leading to opening night in one, digitally-unbroken take, making room along the way for Method asshole Michael Shiner (Method asshole Edward Norton)--who steals both the play Birdman is about and the play-within-a-play conceit of the movie by stealing the movie--and tons of narrative melodramatics, including a neurotic leading lady (Naomi Watts), Riggan's burnout daughter (Emma Stone), and his stressed-out lawyer/manager (Zach Galifianakis). The whole story roils with desperation and disappointment, and the film-as-object does the same--the transparency between those two things (cine-reality and sad-truth-of-it reality) cited repeatedly in the screenplay-by-committee in exhausting, self-abnegating fashion. Birdman is an incredible bore. The closest analogue in feel is Todd Solondz's unfortunate riposte to his detractors, Storytelling, but at least that one wasn't all tarted up in attention-grabbing technical pandering. Birdman is about as clever as that Blues Traveler song: the tedious offense of idiots calling you an idiot.
Consider the moment early on when Shiner tells Riggan to cut out the fat in his script and stop repeating things multiple times in different iterations, then marvel as Birdman proceeds to spend itself rubbing the same elitist post for the next two-plus hours. "It's so meta--" the filmmakers might crow, though I wonder if it was intentional that Birdman be precisely the misguided, masturbatory vanity piece Riggan's play appears to be. Although it has a snotty critic character name-drop Roland Barthes, it proceeds to misunderstand Roland Barthes; it's like the whole damn thing is that guy in Annie Hall who gets a lecture from Marshall McLuhan. But Birdman's biggest miscalculation, frankly, is that it believes it isn't more vacuous than the "Hollywood" productions it's taking these wild, haymaker swings at. It's more vacuous. It's the exact equivalent of a middlebrow-appeasing, broadly-appealing troll of a mainstream film, actually--the arthouse Michael Bay product that hits every dopamine-vending cue in a festival-goer's lizard brain. It's funny, because while white, privileged, Seven Sisters-educated moviegoers of a certain age are this film's choir, Birdman actually gives adorable Sam (adorable Stone) a long monologue--one of so many--that skewers the "rich, white, old people" assembled to watch Riggan's play/this movie. Irony? Arthouse audiences don't recognize themselves. The real irony is it's both intentionally and unintentionally ironic.
The case could also be made that if the film were truly as Pirandello-esque as it wants to be, it would have addressed its casual misogyny in casting every woman as hysterical or pregnant. Even Amy Ryan's otherwise-sane ex-wife character hauls off and slaps someone late in the game. See, Birdman takes a stab at Venus in Fur early on when Shiner appears, knowing all of the play's lines in something mulled over in deep, repetitive, self-conscious doyougetitdoyougetit detail, but it sure doesn't have any idea of what to do with its proto-feminism once it gets there. Watts's bonzer actress cries, "Why don't I have any self-respect?" right before doing a lesbian smooch just like she did in her best role (Mulholland Drive), and boy, that was a long time ago. Again Birdman, about actors struggling to get their groove back, is ironic in every way, unintentional and otherwise. It's the product of people who gratify others for their provincial attitudes while demonstrating provincial attitudes. The picture erects a straw-dog of a brittle New York theatre critic (brittle Lindsay Duncan), who delivers a terrible speech about how mainstream movies are all cartoons or pornography; and then it breaks her down, too, with another foaming Riggan diatribe about TRUTH and ART and how critics don't create anything, they only destroy. Critics like Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde and Manny Farber and Greil Marcus and Robert Hughes and Jonathan Lethem. You know: assholes, hacks. Birdman is a pathetic little movie by one of the "big three" Mexican directors who emerged roughly simultaneously a few years ago. His compatriots have gone on to make Pacific Rim and the best Harry Potter flick; Iñárritu's done 21 Grams and Babel in that same time period. I guess I understand where his rancour comes from after all.