In Birdman, Passion Trumps Pretension… Barely

birdman-trailer-2While Michael Keaton may be best known for his time as the Caped Crusader, that is far from the only thing he should be remembered for. His performances in Beetlejuice, Jackie Brown, The Other Guys, and Game 6, not to mention hilarious guest spots on Frasier and 30 Rock and many other roles, all showcase a sharp yet malleable performer, and one that seemed content to walk away from superstardom to pursue more ambiguous artistic aspirations. This seeming avoidance of the traditional leading man spotlight has made Keaton an engaging and unpredictable actor, but has also kept that famous superhero as his most recognizable role. The central question that Birdman raises is whether the big, broad appeal of media celebrity is better or worse than the deeper, yet potentially insignificant impact of “true art”. It’s a compelling question, and one that is brilliantly personified by Keaton, but one that is almost drowned out by Alejandro G. Inarritu and company’s blunt pretentiousness.

The primary dramatic push of the film is the tension that arises from Riggan’s (Keaton) goal to put on his play, while also being haunted by the spectre of his superhero alter-ego that begs him to return to being a Movie Star. When the script is focusing on these elements, it can really sing: the external conflict of trying to manage the production of this play brings a lot of humorous drama to bear, while Riggan’s internal conflict eventually builds up to some eye-popping visuals and some interesting considerations about the nature of fame. All of this is brought to wonderful life by Keaton, who really kills every aspect of the role. He conveys pitiable, desperate, scornful and regretful with equal measure, and is often funny as hell in the process. Furthermore, the development of the play itself provides some of the best interactions in the film. Riggan’s first interaction with Broadway veteran Mike (Edward Norton) is a terrific exchange that not only speaks to the dynamics between the two characters but also serves as a great depiction of the acting process, a moment that entertains on several levels at once. And the voice of Birdman in Riggan’s head is often very funny, underscoring many of the overt dramatic moments and while feeding into his gradual delusions.

However, as much as these moments work, there are numerous other moments that distract or detract from them, which then slows the dramatic and thematic momentum that the main narrative thrives on. The biggest issues are the numerous moments in the film where it feels like Inarritu and his cowriters have hijacked the characters’ voices and turned them into mouthpieces for their own issues with the film world. Numerous characters offer brutal dismissals of Riggan’s film work, particularly Birdman, and seem to have a real disregard for Hollywood filmmaking in general. While this could be contrasted by how many people recognize Riggan on the street as opposed to Mike, or by acknowledging that the intimate impact of a theatre performance might not be more significant than something like Birdman providing surface-level enjoyment to many more people, this nuance is never really explored. Even when Birdman is tempting Riggan with a comeback, all he does is quote possible box office numbers and merchandising options. He never points out that Riggan’s work as Birdman has meant more to more people than his work on Broadway ever could. By letting his vocal disdain for superhero blockbusters bleed into this film, Inarritu robs the primary thematic arc of what could’ve been some great nuance and ambiguity.

While the broad dismissal of superhero blockbusters unsurprisingly bugged me, that was not the only target of the film’s blowhard arguments. The film also presents a cartoonishly evil critic who, it’s revealed, has apparently decided to pan Riggan’s play because of her own distaste for his career, which then presents Riggan with an opportunity to launch into the most cliche of tirades against critics. You don’t create, you just label; you risk nothing, I risk everything. All of the great, pretentious dismissals of critics are included here, and taken in conjunction with the film’s blunt, yknow, criticism of blockbuster films we get a vivid “you can dish it out but you can’t take it” picture of the filmmakers. Again, it ignores the greater nuance of the topic (which is already an aside from the main thrust of the story): that true criticism is not just about trashing something, it’s about providing a context and point of view that can hopefully illuminate the flaws or the successes of a given work. But as before, that nuance is ignored to better serve Inarritu’s broader frustrations. While I might not personally agree with or appreciate those frustrations, there’s nothing wrong with making a film about them, but he could have tackled them in a better-crafted fashion.

It’s not just the script that proves Inarritu’s more pretentious perspectives though, as his approach to the staging of the script does this as well. Pretty much the entire two-hour film is shot and edited as one uninterrupted take, and though there are still time lapses (the film covers a week of time) these transitions are still held in-camera. On the one hand, this sprawling long take is very technically accomplished and is immaculately choreographed, and in some instances (the opening sequence at the theatre, and other backstage scramblings, and the transitions into Riggan’s fantasies) the long-take format helps to heighten and emphasize what we’re seeing, as any good long-take should. But on the other hand, there is really no reason whatsoever for the entire film to be structured this way. Outside of the few circumstances where it really works it mostly just feels like Inarritu showing off, using this (well-crafted) gimmick because he could, not because he needed to. The end result being that it’s flashy and sometimes fun, but many other times feels like a distraction or like they had to strain to make it work in the long take.

Yet, with all of that being said, there was still something about the film that worked for me. Once you get past all the pretension and flash, the film is a lovely and impassioned ode to acting and performance, and how much of yourself you have to give over to your audience in order to truly accomplish something profound. It speaks to the strength of the main thematic arc, and to Keaton’s uncompromising and personal performance, that it still leaves an imprint through all the bullshit. I would definitely consider Birdman a good film, and even though some of the more pretentious attitudes of the movie annoyed the hell out of me, there is a clear passion for and celebration of the personal cost of art that makes the film engaging and compelling, and worth seeing for anyone who appreciates that sacrifice.

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