Oftentimes, a film can entirely exist as a reaction to the state of cinema at the time. Over the last few years, superhero blockbusters have become not just a genre of film, but a financial juggernaut as well. 2008 is the year I view as the culprit for this superhero film boom with the overwhelming successes of Iron Man and The Dark Knight. While director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman is not entirely a bitter condemnation of the trend, it is definitely a cynical confrontation on the superhero film genre. It is also a commentary on our entertainment culture as a whole, actors, and the notion of a struggling actor going all in on one last passion project to reignite his career.
It’s definitely not purely circumstantial that the star of the film is Michael Keaton, an actor who himself portrayed Batman for two films. In Birdman, he plays Riggan Thomson; a washed up actor who once played an iconic superhero but has consequently struggled to achieve further success. He’s looking to reclaim his lost fame through a Raymond Carver play on Broadway, but by tackling almost every role possible from directing to starring to writing. Everything falls apart; actors suffer “accidents”, his co-workers don’t entirely trust him, and he’s having family issues with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone). Not only that, he can hear his own voice as the titular character mocking his aspirations and tempting him back to the role that made him famous.
From a technical standpoint, Birdman is a revelatory marvel. The film is almost made up entirely of uninterrupted single takes, something I have not seen since Hitchcock’s Rope. You can look closely to determine where the cuts are, but it’s a technique that feels necessary as opposed to being artsy for the sake of art. Tracking shots are intricately composed to effectively convey the transitions along with a wide variety of camera angles. Because the film centers around a stage production, it’s very easy to see the act structure and for the minimal takes to be justified. The score is composed of jazz-esque music, frequently relying on cymbals and drums to match the boiling points of the story when need be.
Aside from the borderline stunt casting, Michael Keaton delivers in a tour-de-force performance. Much like Thomsen, he’s kept a relatively low profile in recent years but Birdman feels much like a comeback. He brings a lot of his unique eccentricities to the role; he brings a hyper playfulness to scenes and previously unseen wry desperation. Even beyond the Batman similarity, Keaton plays with his own persona. One of his co-stars (Edward Norton) also satirizes his own persona. As the pretentious high-minded actor Mike, Norton is brilliant like he almost always is. His character’s style of acting is as method as can be, echoing of James Dean if he was still with us. Norton has occasionally been known to be difficult to work with which plays into some of the funnier scenes in the movie. I can’t really place Birdman as a drama or a comedy since it rests somewhere as a happy medium.
I admire the rest of the performances in the film more than I like them. Other actors such as Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Zach Galifianakis all step in to challenging albeit necessary roles. However, I felt they were all following the same style of not “overacting” per se, but all of them spoke their dialogue in a loud, boisterous manner. Keaton is responsible for providing almost all of the subtle nuances in the film, and even then there’s moments where he follows suit with the majority of his co-stars. I wasn’t in love with this choice, but each character represents a different side of human nature in regards to acceptance and even self-worth. The script is full of abrupt pauses that lend the film to feel much more genuine. As much as I love a film like Glengarry Glen Ross, I do get taken out with the perfect delivery of such complex dialogue. There may be an overabundance of characters as well; some plotlines don’t quite reach a penultimate conclusion.
Director Inarritu has been an outspoken critic of the superhero genre. In Birdman, the theater critic character serves as his own personal avatar. It’s in this character that I have to take issue with the film. She says some things about superhero films that I considered unfair, such as calling them “pornography.” This agenda makes all critics look like pretentious snobs to be honest. She’s entirely deadest on giving Thomson’s play a negative review, which some critics are susceptible to do. If you do that, then it’s difficult to be subjective. I appreciate the perspective given that she’s well versed in theater, but I think most of her comments cross the line. Inarritu says what he wants with remarkable precision even though I disagree with his points, but I felt this was where the film lost its exceptional utilization of subversiveness. Also, it does stumble with satirizing the superhero film spectacle with some dodgy special effects at times. I feel that if you’re going to point out or critique areas of a genre, then your handling has to be perfect.
Amidst my issues, Birdman is one of the most provocative films of the year. I feel everyone should go and see it to make up their mind, especially if you’re someone who is a fan of superhero blockbusters. It’s every bit as insightful as any documentary film you will see. Birdman has such a distinctive style and technique to its composition that based on those merits, it’s a film where there’s always something to discuss or dissect once it’s over. That to me is the sign of a truly great film; if you are still thinking about it weeks after you’ve seen it.
Review – ‘Birdman’