Film Review | Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Crammed with an impressive ensemble cast and careening across the screen in a single uninterrupted tracking shot, Birdman declares itself loudly as a subversive masterpiece, but in the end has little to show for it.

From Batman to Birdman: Michael Keaton
From Batman to Birdman: Michael Keaton

That Birdman is a top Oscar contender this year is something of a foregone conclusion, and a further reminder of its posturing hollowness. The Academy likes to nominate the loudly obvious. ‘Worthy’ films that are shot to polished – and deadening – perfection with crisp but artless photography, and whose (usually ensemble-bloated) casts are culled from the comfortable fraternity of the American-and-British thespian elite.

The sad thing is, Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman was supposed to be anything but yet another example of the dead churn of lifeless stories that routinely make the Oscar shortlist. It promised to be inventive, spiky and angry – adjectives which wouldn’t normally apply to porcelain-hewn contenders like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, much less depressingly predictable shoo-ins like American Sniper and Selma.

Sadly, however, this film about Hollywood eating itself never manages to rise beyond its on-paper concept. Instead, it languishes in its assumed cleverness, using monologue-rants as a feeble replacement for genuine dramatic pressure points.

The cringingly self-aware cleverness starts early on: in fact, it started at casting, long before the film even began shooting. Former Batman star Michael Keaton plays former Birdman star Riggan Thompson, an actor at the twilight of his career who wants to snatch away some artistic recognition before the lights go out forever. How does he propose to do this? By staging a production of Raymond Carver’s classic talking-heads short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on the Broadway stage, of course.

 

The problem is, nobody is convinced by the former superhero blockbuster star’s grasping attempt at lasting relevance. Not the press – whose most caustic representative is The New York Times’s Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) – and not his cast, most of whom are grateful for the opportunity to perform on Broadway but who get a sense that the project isn’t entirely in safe hands. Even Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) – a recovering drug addict now serving as her father’s personal assistant – senses that her father’s project isn’t at all germane to the current cultural climate.

But Riggan’s harshest critic is himself. Or rather, an earlier, fictional manifestation of himself. Channelling the gravelly Batman tones made infamous by Christian Bale, the ‘Birdman’ often returns to haunt Riggan during his darkest moments, pushing the beleaguered actor’s insecurities to a breaking point.

Inarritu and his clutch of co-writers – Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo ­– effectively capture the caustic gab of its New York milieu: characters bitch with palpable gusto, and urbane sarcasm is common currency. This barbed, madcap atmosphere is amplified by an admittedly genius touch on the Mexican director’s part: the decision to shoot the film as one continuous, uninterrupted tracking shot. Unlike the cloying self-consciousness that smothers the film in other areas, this device feels like the exact opposite of a gimmick. In fact, it fits perfectly with both the rolling panic of the Broadway backstage and Riggan’s own ceaseless paranoia.

It’s a shame that in every other way, then, the film is little more than a lazy attack on a sitting-duck target that doesn’t bother to wend its bile to a compelling narrative. It makes no secret about its discomfort with Hollywood in general and superhero blockbusters in particular, but it goes about expressing this by simply shoving pre-chewed opinions into its characters mouths and nudging them to spit it all back out.

Birdman’s motives may appear noble. At first glance, it looks as though it’s trying to undermine the Hollywood system ‘from the inside’. But after all is said and done, the film is just an aggregate of complaints. Complaints that aren’t nearly as clever as Inarritu and co. assume they are.

Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) will be showing at St James Cavalier, Valletta on February 7 at 15:00 and February 20 at 20:30.

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