By Chaz Lipp
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu offers two hours of unmitigated pretention with the wholly unpleasant Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Much of the overheated praise it’s garnering can probably be chalked up to the career-rejuvenating role it provides Michael Keaton. He stars as Riggan Thomson, a fading Hollywood star best known for his signature character, a superhero called Birdman. Risking career suicide, he turns down the fourth installment of that cash-cow franchise in favor of a turn on Broadway as the writer, director, and star of a Raymond Carver adaptation. Masking severe substantive shortcomings with an experimental visual style (much of the movie has the appearance of having been shot in a series of long, uninterrupted takes with very minimal editing), Iñárritu trots out tired commentary about the vapidity of Hollywood blockbusters, the artificiality of social media-based fame, and the general public’s insatiable need to witness trainwreck-level failure.
As convincingly frenetic as Keaton is as the deeply self-loathing, suicidally-depressed Riggan, he’s not enough to support Birdman. There are lots of other famous actors – each of whom has participated in some of the very same “Hollywood product” for which Iñárritu expresses (via the screenplay) such distain – but none of them is afforded a respectable character arc. Most of the action unfolds backstage and onstage during preview performances of Riggan’s play. Edward Norton has a few interesting moments as Mike Shiner, a tantrum-prone Broadway star who attempts to reduce the flab he sees in Riggan’s writing (too bad Shiner couldn’t have done the same to Birdman’s redundant screenplay). Naomi Watts, atoning (as much as she can in an underwritten role) for the career lowpoint she established in St. Vincent, is another of Riggan’s cast members. She’s also Shiner’s girlfriend and he attempts to rape her under the covers in view of the unwitting preview audience. Flustered after the traumatic event, she considers a lesbian fling with Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), but this (like so many of Birdman’s plot threads) goes nowhere. A rape attempt and the surprising reaction it provokes are all Watts has to work with before being abandoned.
Then there’s Emma Stone as Riggan’s recovering-addict daughter Sam. She delivers Birdman’s most effective moment – a scathing assessment of her father’s ambitions to be “relevant” and do something “important.” Sam calls out her father as being self-obsessed and writes off his Carver adaptation as, basically, a self-indulgent waste of everyone’s time. Riggan’s response is to light up what’s left of his daughter’s joint. Sam’s moment of truth-telling is curiously at odds with most of what Birdman seems to be about, only adding to the overall confused, incoherent message rather than defining it. Riggan intermittently hears the voice of “Birdman” in his head – it’s his supposedly evil, corporate-driven side – constantly chastising him for abandoning his commercially lucrative career. We never really know what Riggan would truly rather be doing – wasting his time cashing checks by making brainless blockbusters (which don’t actually have to be brainless, a concept Iñárritu might disagree with) or striving to explore the human condition in an artistically valid way.
The irony is that Iñárritu and Riggan seem to share the same contradictions. Birdman ends up being a big jerk-off of a sermon, looking down at what it perceives to be the masses of Cineplex zombies paying for explosions and CG effects while failing to offer an intelligent, emotionally-satisfying alternative. The reality is that it’s possible (and recommendable) to find simple pleasures in well-crafted blockbuster product (recent example: Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy), and also have one’s thoughts and emotions provoked by character studies (recent example: Whiplash). In the aggressively curmudgeonly, condescending Birdman, Iñárritu and company have managed to spit in the face of every variety of filmgoer.