By contributor Spencer Wilson
Going to see Birdman is like buying a chocolate chip muffin and then discovering, after the first bite, that it has raisins instead. It’s that special kind of bad where an auteur tries very hard to convince you of something, only to have it thrown back in their face. This is exactly what happens when director Alejandro González Iñárritu tries to convince everyone that superhero movies are ridiculous (we know, that’s why we go see them), and that Broadway is not as dignified as it appears to be.
Iñárritu has had a storied success directing films that juggle between multiple characters going through crises, and nothing has changed for Birdman. What’s different this time around is that instead of cutting between interspersing stories so that the viewer perceives a connection, the entire film is shot to look like it was done in one complete take. It’s a stunning achievement from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who is fresh off his Oscar win in cinematography for Gravity, and will likely garner himself another one. Unfortunately, that’s where the fun stops.
In the film, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor known for his role as a popular superhero named Birdman. After falling off the radar, Riggan decides to make his big comeback by starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love“. The whole play completely juxtaposes Riggan’s role as Birdman, with its focus on philosophy and blue-collar life rather than fantasy and action. Not only is he starring in the play, but he’s also directing it and he adapted the short story himself.
As rehearsals draw near to the first preview night, Riggan is increasingly dissatisfied with how the play is progressing and purposefully causes a stage light to fall on the supporting male’s head. Soon after this incident, the supporting actor’s role is filled by Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a prestigious actor that Riggan’s manager, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), hopes to use to bring in more ticket buyers. Mike is a completely over-the-top method actor who has already memorized the entire script and quickly suggests some changes as he and Riggan start playing around with the scenes. Mike even has a sun bed delivered to his dressing room so he can get a “red-neck tan.” The relationship becomes rocky when Mike drinks real gin on stage during the first preview night to fully get into character, and then blows up in Riggan’s face on stage for changing the bottle to water. Mike also begins to clash with the two female cast members, Laura (Andrea Risenborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts). Unfortunately, they can’t fire Mike because the ticket sales for the play have sky-rocketed following his addition to the cast.
During this time, Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), has just got out of rehab and has been enlisted to help in the production to keep her busy. It’s clear that she’s reluctant to do anything and harbours a great deal of loathing for her self-obsessed father, but she’s stuck helping to distract herself from rebounding back into drug use. He’s also visited by his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who reveals Riggan’s self-centred nature to dislike people that don’t admire all of his previous work. When Riggan gets some time to himself, it is usually accompanied by a comically bass-boosted, overly-gruff voice-over presumed to be the voice of Birdman inside Riggan’s head.
The voice takes on the tone of sounding like Batman–an obvious reference to Keaton’s role as Batman in the Tim Burton adaptations–which could be funny if the film didn’t keep rubbing that in your face. Riggan is constantly annoyed with the superhero genre, lambasting actors (Jeremy Renner; Michael Fassbender; and Robert Downey, Jr. to name a few) that take up film roles as superheroes when he’s initially trying to find a replacement for his supporting actor. Combined with Riggan being a washed-up actor known for playing a popular superhero, it becomes increasingly clear that Riggan is basically a parody of Michael Keaton’s career, which really hasn’t gone anywhere since the height of his popularity when he was playing Batman. Keaton still does a great job despite this, although there are many scenes where it feels like he’s giving you his best crazy George Clooney impersonation rather than a unique performance.
The same goes for Edward Norton’s character. Norton is a notoriously methodical and intense actor and absolutely gives the best performance out of the whole cast. Like Keaton, Norton also has ties to the superhero franchise with his role as the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk (2008). These ties get taken even further by his character’s inability to work well with others; the reason behind Norton’s replacement by Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk in The Avengers (2012) was that the producers didn’t feel that Norton would be a good team actor. (Even Emma Stone had a role in a superhero film as Gwen Stacy in the two recent Spider-Man films.)
The repeated superhero referencing and Birdman narration gets tiresome as Iñárritu tries to paint the genre as a cheap form of escapism where it’s all action and no philosophy (the last Captain America film disproves that). There are a few scenes with Riggan imagining himself flying around like Birdman, but it’s executed in such a corny manner that it can only be a deliberate showing of his contempt for the cheapness of the genre. It’s an entirely boring argument that tries way too hard to sound important by being self-reflective. Too bad the subject of monotony in action-based films was already perfectly discussed in Singin’ in the Rain sixty years ago.
Iñárritu also attempts to make Broadway look as excessively self-important and over-dramatized as possible. Riggan is constantly being told how unfit he is to perform on the stage, especially by Mike who is supposed to represent the smugness of veteran, theatre actors. The entire cast behaves like spoiled children, and the ridiculousness climaxes in a brief sex scene between the two female co-stars that comes out of nowhere.
The allusions are constant, but the grossest of them all is in the form of a notorious theatre critic named Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan). She informs Riggan that she’s going to destroy his play, even though she hasn’t seen it, because she hates everything he stands for. Riggan picks up Tabitha’s notebook of critiques and crumples one of the pages while scolding her for labelling something that he put his heart and soul into. It’s a childish piece of writing and it makes Iñárritu look like he’s throwing a temper tantrum when people don’t appreciate his shallow perceptions on life (which he tries to pass off as clever).
Even though the shooting style of the film is interesting, it doesn’t provide any breaks between all of the tension present in the film. Everything is kept at a constant boil, making the film exhausting to sit through. The camera zooms around between characters having conversations and usually finds them in separate parts of the theatre. It’s an attempt to give the film that feeling of seeing a theatre performance where everything happens in one long take, but it just comes out feeling like a long film that didn’t utilize editing as well as it could have.
There’s room for the film to be fun if you can get over how clever it thinks it is. The constant allusions feel like you’re watching the film with an annoying friend who has seen it before—the kind of friend that keeps jabbing you with his elbow and telling you about what certain things mean to try to help your enjoyment. It points out the obvious and then expects a pat on the back. It’s immature, ridiculous, and not worth your time.