Or: GOLD DIGGERS OF 2014
DIRECTED BY ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU/2014
“Birdman, Batman, it’s all the same…”
In the same shorthand method of subtle audience intelligence-congratulating utilized for decades by The Simpsons each time they offer a pop culture reference and you feel good about getting it, is the tempting meta-angle of Michael Keaton starring as a long-ago superhero movie actor now out to prove himself as a bona-fide talent in loftier fare. But don’t believe the hype – Keaton and his Birdman character Riggan Thomson are not one and the same. Having seen the new film, this was apparent even before Keaton told Mark Harris as much in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview.
Riggan is a self-conscious faded movie star who made one Birdman movie too many. (“…That’s why I said no to Birdman 4!”) By contrast, Keaton had the good sense to get out of the Batcave after only two outings. And perhaps that makes all the difference in the world of rubber-suited 1990s movie superheroes? While Keaton’scasting as this character in this film is an irresistible talking point (here we are!), it must be said that Inarritu’s film, at times, doesn’t know whether to sidestep this coup, or hang on its hook, beaming. Anyway, Keaton is remarkable, and remarkably gutsy for doing this.
Birdman is too well made and too outside the box to allow itself to be done in by its own self-congratulatory cleverness.
This is not to say that Birdman is a sham, or in any way unworthy. It is indeed one of the year’s more notable cinematic offerings, for numerous reasons. Birdman is too well made and too outside the box to allow itself to be done in by its own self-congratulatory cleverness. (Oh, it knows!) But audiences should understand that latching on too tightly to the unavoidable past resumes of Keaton and his character might in fact be a big fat intellectual hinderance to enjoying this film for its many, many other simpler and/or interesting pleasures.
Fact of the matter is that it’s not just Keaton – Birdman is downright stocked with superhero movie alum. In this day and age, that’s admittedly likely to be the case for most any dramatic film with movie stars. (In five years, it might well be impossible to find name talent that hasn’t worked in a Marvel or DC property.) Edward Norton was once the Hulk, but here he plays an ego-maniacal actor who’s last minute willingness to replace a lesser actor in Riggan’s stage play comes with a cartload of hilariously jerky entitlement. Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy was the best thing about the Amazing Spider-Man films; here, she’s Riggan’s daughter, mired in an identity crisisonly “Birdman’s daughter” could truly appreciate. All are terrific – we’d frankly expect no less from these people.
While the film is impeccably made, technically impressive, and acted to the hilt, it’s just too awash in its own overbearing meta cleverness to ever allow itself to be an organic experience. But maybe that’s the point. Director Alejandro González Inarritu (making his first foray into comedy, following the unflinching 21 Grams and Babel) is certainly taking a page from Fellini‘s 8 1/2 and even Citizen Kane by making a backstage drama set in the world of the modern superhero Blockbuster and Twitter and viral videos. The play is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, itself receiving screen credit as basis for the film itself. (!) That assures a lofty respectability and ever-hipness the way Leonard Cohen always will – the very point of Riggan putting everything on the line to make it his own. And on Broadway, no less. One would need to be as blind as a bat to miss the high culture/low culture collisions going on throughout Birdman.
Filmed to appear predominantly as an unbroken, continuous single shot, Birdman takes place in the lived-in, if-these-walls-could-talk-they’d-SING! authentic nooks, crannies, and stage of an actual Broadway theater. And subsequently, this may be the best backstage drama since Gold Diggers of 1933, or All About Eve. But somehow, in its being so technically brazen, so upfront about its ideas, Birdman leaves us weirdly little to latch onto except for those things. It’s all one big commentary on the vacuousness of modern culture, commenting on how things have changed that much since 1992 when Keaton last appeared as Batman.
And furthermore, not that this is a complaint, the whole effort has the vibe of being born of sleep deprived, slaphappy genius. Did Inarritu concoct the uncompromisingly daft Birdman in the wee hours while making his last uber-serious art house opus and noticing the box office haul of Iron Man in Variety? Logic and convention are out the window, fluttering down like feathers in front a Broadway marquee – this movie all about character and ideas, man! And for the most part, refreshingly so. But if anyone can explain why Riggan has willful telekinesis or sometimes can fly, I’d love to hear about it. It’s just one question as to why this film should only play incinemas with coffee shops nearby, so that afterwards viewers can go there and discuss for hours how deep the layers go!
So yes, Birdman is taking pot-shots at certain four-color cultural fascinations of the moment, among other things. But should we really feel badly for enjoying Iron Man and The Avengers? Is that what Birdman wants to leave us with? I don’t know about that, but there certainly is an aspect of holding a mirror up to the audience. And that mirror is one big silver screen filled with yet more meta-artifice. Birdman is one clever movie, with one good scene after another. But as good as it is, there’s a detached artsy superiority about it all, something much less confessional than pronouncing. In that way, it rings far more inauthentic than its clear inspiration, 8 ½. Although by 2014 standards, Birdman remains an 8 1/2 out of 10.