I have a feeling I may be in the minority with my review of Birdman. I haven’t read any other reviews but from limited discussions with other critics and a general sense of buzz, I feel like the general take on this movie is that it’s impressive and one of the better films of 2014. I wouldn’t necessarily argue about those two points … but I also can’t say I’ll care to remember this movie longer than it takes me to finish this review.
The movie is about an actor (Michael Keaton) who hit it big with a costumed super hero franchise but has since been unable to be dissociated with the character, or his ego, and he’s looking to reinvent himself as a serious actor and to gain credibility. More importantly, he thinks these things will make him relevant in the way he wants to be. And so, he sinks all his money into a Broadway show, not only adapting the material himself, but starring and directing in it as well.
He already has 2 of the other 3 core actors in place (Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts) but in a pinch and needing someone who can boost ticket sales, Keaton brings in Edward Norton. What begins as the shot in the arm the play needed quickly turns into a chaotic mess of drama and confrontation.
All of this is taking place while Keaton’s daughter (played by Emma Stone) is working as his assistant and recovering from addiction. There are also subplots about Keaton’s relationship with Riseborough, Norton’s relationship with Watts, Stone and Norton being attracted to one another, the power that one specific theater critic has over the play’s future, and there’s even a smattering of Zach Galifianakis thrown in.
If that sounds like too much to cover, that’s made worse by nearly everyone in the film, short of Norton and Keaton (for the most part), being little more than stereotypical archetypes that seem to be in the movie purely as a means of progressing/hindering the psychosis of Keaton. If you’ve seen the trailer you may already have an idea about this and I’m not going to go too far into it as I feel like that would be spoiler territory. Suffice to say, the pressures in his life are getting to him and his coping mechanisms are non-existent.
Now, as to why this is impressive and one of the better films of 2014, let me tackle the latter aspect first: 2014 isn’t a strong year for cinema. Being one of the better films doesn’t really mean much. As for the impressive part, all of that is thanks to director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu. While he didn’t seem all that interested in making the supporting characters three-dimensional, he did shoot the film in a very interesting manner. Not only are there a ton of very long takes without a cut, when those cuts do happen they are masked in such a way as to give the impression that the bulk of the movie is one long, continuous camera movement. This isn’t actually true and it’s easy to spot where things are cut but the attempt is there and it’s done rather successfully.
This approach to the narrative is great in theory but after being impressed in the first half-hour, the next 90 minutes seemed more like Iñárritu felt he had to continue with a gimmick than something that was crucial to telling the story. And while the movie comes in right under the two-hour mark, it felt quite a bit longer. This was exacerbated by the final 15 minutes of the movie looking more like the product of test audiences than what I would hope the original draft might have looked like. Without spoiling things, let’s just say that punches are pulled, and the manner in which events end up almost make the movie a farce.
As I close the book on this one, let me remind you that I won’t be surprised to be in the minority opinion. I’m nonplussed and would much rather have re-watched Fight Club, for a number of reasons, but I give Iñárritu credit. The movie is ambitious initially, and he pulled off some really great cinematic choreography to make the shots line up as they do. Sadly, that effort quickly felt forced and with the melodrama of the whole affair ramping up with each scene, I became less and less engaged with the story as the time ticked away in the theater. While I give Birdman an ‘A’ for effort and intent, the final grade won’t be quite so high.
Birdman is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.