Birdman: An Overstuffed Art Piece
Mexican writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu has been esteemed as one of the top “quality filmmakers” working today after the release of his 2006 film Babel, which grossed over $130 million worldwide and scored the jackpot in Oscar nominations. This international, multilingual, ensemble piece crafted each of its four narratives with equal ineptitude, tying them together with brazenly tenuous connections. Its two-and-a-half hour running time was fueled exclusively by gloom.
Iñárritu’s latest film, Birdman, makes Babel look like a flawless masterpiece in comparison. The film wastes no time whacking us in the ass with its stridency. The opening credits- accompanied by a ringing typewriter bell, foreshadow the plodding pace- make a big to-do about having not one, but two titles, Birdman OR The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. I think that a simple, terse title such as Birdbrain would be more congruent with the finished product.
The hype would have you believe that Birdman is an innovative metanarrative that deconstructs the bastardation of modern art and culture. Methinks the tsunami of praise comes from the fact that nobody understands the point of this film but nobody is willing to admit that. Underneath the convoluted narrative veneer Birdman is reductive tripe that arbitrarily shifts between snarkiness to sentimentality for two hours of your life that you’ll never get back.
Riggan (Michael Keaton), is a dumpy and balding former A-list Hollywood star desperately trying to distance himself from his blockbuster movie franchise Birdman (get it, it’s an allusion to Batman. Clever, right?). Now in the midst of making a bold Broadway debut in a play that he has written, directed, and is starring, his lowbrow character, now a bad omen, informs the over-the-hill Riggan “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” As this is “art,” Iñárritu and his co-writers churn out dialogue that strains to be sharp and profound, but instead comes out like a generic stream of diarrhea.
The filmmakers make you sure you grapple with how “different” Birdman is; for example, the score, which is a drum solo consistently ten dBs too loud and the camera staring too intently at cutaways of the drummer, because it’s such a damn clever use of breaking the fourth wall between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Beyond the ballyhoo, much of Birdman is rather rote. It is just busier than most mainstream films and bundles too many narrative threads together leaving everything in an unruly tangle.
What I find most objectionable is the sloppy appropriation of other filmmakers’ styles for which we would reprimand a third-year film student for doing. Iñárritu cobbles together the whininess of a Woody Allen piece lacking his ear for neurotic idiosyncrasy, the theatrical melancholy of Fellini sans the baroque splendor, and the profanity of Scorsese and Robert Altman without the searing satirical bite, among others. Ultimately, it mirrors (too closely) the irritating pseudo-philosophical hogwash of David O. Russell (another vastly overrated “artiste” in my book).
The cinematographic style bears an uncanny resemblance to Black Swan, especially in the jerky handheld evening New York exteriors and the claustrophobic corridor shots. It was seamless for Black Swan as Aronofsky’s masterwork is kinetic and visceral. In contrast, this aesthetic feels alien to Birdman, appearing sloppy and contrived. I was shocked to discover that Emmanuel Lubezki was responsible for it.
Birdman brilliantly showcases the reason Michael Keaton doesn’t get that much work. He exhibits as much charisma here as he did as Batman, the only difference being that he doesn’t have the luxury of Tim Burton’s impressionistically campy Gotham City or a jugular-devouring co-star like Jack Nicholson or Michelle Pfeiffer. Keaton even lacks spark in the Birdman costume (another rip-off from Black Swan).
Edward Norton and Naomi Watts as married actors seem uncomfortable and confused. Although their characters are the cliché man-child and the high strung shrew, both performers try to give sensitive performances, but look like asses for their trouble.
It’s sad to see Amy Ryan, who less than ten years ago gave such raw and exciting performances in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Gone Baby Gone, reduced to the bland long-suffering ex-wife role.
Downright terrible are Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis. Riseborough totally lacks comedic timing and overplays every line, every gesture, in a desperate bid for the audience to notice her. Galifianakis, like several other high profile personalities, fails at scaling down in a Joe Shmo sidekick part, as small is simply not his strength.
Out of the principal cast, only Emma Stone creates a successful characterization. She wisely steps back and detaches from the material at large and inhibits her own funky, nonchalant world. Whereas her other cast mates overthink everything, she easily coasts on her natural, quirky attributes, namely her smoky, stoner drawl and bulging anime eyes.
The only time she falters is in her overly earnest delivery of a part of a monologue intended as her Oscars demo reel: “Things are happening in a place you ignore…You hate bloggers, you mock Twitter, you don’t even have a Facebook page…You’re doing this because you’re scared to death that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t.” It’s just as inane in text as on screen, yet the filmmakers regard it as seriously as a Russian play.
The best overall performance comes from the venerable British character thespian Lindsay Duncan as Tabitha, a ruthless and feared theater critic. In another miscalculation, the script primarily has her function as a bitchy castrating female for us to laugh at as Norton and Keaton’s characters make disparaging remarks about her supposedly ugly face- totally off base, as Duncan is one of the few working actresses over fifty who has a radiantly age-appropriate look that doesn’t look like it pays a monthly visit to a plastic surgeon.
She rises above this limitation to provide an authoritatively searing delivery of the film’s only salient speech- one that seems to closely mirror harsh, but salient words Pauline Kael hurled at the overrated Robert Redford– that she hates him because he’s a spoiled, entitled celebrity who doesn’t understand his craft. Sadly, her consternating words would have been better directed at Iñárritu during pre-production.
By the end I was sorry that I didn’t watch All About Eve for the tenth time instead. You too would be better off with this 1950 cineaste’s wet dream, with its colorful ensemble one-upping each other with biting one-liners, stylized yet organic and affecting.