movie film review | chris tookey

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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  Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Review
Tookey's Rating
4 /10
Average Rating
8.13 /10
Michael Keaton , Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis
Full Cast >

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo,Nicolas Giacobone

Released: 2014
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Length: 119

Nothing to get in a flap about.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Birdman has impressed a lot of people, especially critics, with its starry cast and air of importance. I came out of it with a feeling that it was about half as intelligent as it thought it was, that it was a shambolic mixture of styles and that it was fatally confused about what it was trying to say. I’d call it at its best an ambitious failure, at its worst a pretentious fraud.

The film is heavily indebted to Jean-Luc Godard, from its opening titles (a lift from Godard’s 60s films, especially Pierrot le Fou) to its message that Hollywood films are pernicious garbage, via its use of actors in roles that reflect their careers in other films – notably Alphaville, starring Eddie Constantine, and all those films starring Godard’s off-screen wife, Anna Karina.

Michael Keaton stars as Roggan Thomson, an actor who made his name in superhero movies but turned his back on them in order to find himself and create great art. He’s now putting on a Broadway play based on a story by Raymond Carver, that he hopes will bring him respectability and make him a star again.

Critics have been keen to praise the courage of an actor willing to play a role so close to himself. Keaton famously decided to back out of the Batman franchise, although my recollection is that Keaton then chose not to make arty films or dedicate his life to the theatre, but to make a succession of films that ranged from the okay (such as The Paper and Jackie Brown) to the atrocious (My Life, Multiplicity, Desperate Measures, Jack Frost, First Daughter, White Noise, Herbie: Fully Loaded and The Merry Gentleman). Keaton’s only stab at art was to play Dogberry, the comic watchman, in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Much Ado About Nothing; but that was 22 years ago. All the same, Hollywood loves a comeback, which may be why this role won Keaton a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.

Critics also liked the film’s central thesis, which is the uncontroversial one that Hollywood is now fixated on mindless superhero films which have little or nothing to do with art. One message crystal clear from Birdman is that actors who appear in blockbusters are not required to do much acting; they are merely acquiring celebrity.

Any doubts that this is one of the movie’s central messages are easily dispelled by the director’s recent interview with Deadline Hollywood. Alejandro Inarritu describes superhero movies as “very right-wing”, “poison” and “cultural genocide”. “If you observe the mentality of most of those films,” says Inarritu, “it’s really about people who are rich, who have power, who will do the good, who will kill the bad. Philosophically, I just don’t like them.”

In the film, this hatred of Hollywood is expressed most forcefully by a wildly implausible theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who confides to Keaton even before she sees his play that she will give him a terrible review, the nastiest of her career, because she can’t stand what he represents: celebrity rather than acting, and movies rather than the theatre.

Of course, no real critic would ever admit to this, even if they were intending to do it, but the nature of this whole film is that characters say whatever’s on their mind with no subtext, just like in a very bad soap opera. Apparently that’s classier than the kind of dialogue that’s in superhero movies, though I seem to recall some rather good dialogue in Spider-Man 2 and the Hellboy films.

The whole film has a dated, hopelessly inaccurate view of the theatre. Lindsay Duncan as the New York Times critic claims to be able to “kill” a show, and the other characters agree. But no one has really had that power since Frank Rich laid down his critical pen in 2011 (and for the last years of his tenure he wasn’t anything like the power he was in the 1980s). As if to emphasise this, there is Phantom of the Opera on just across the street from our hero’s production; many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows have flourished despite poor reviews, and there’s the famous example of the Queen musical We Will Rock You running in the West End for ten years despite universally terrible notices.

As in most films, the critic is portrayed as a chilly, unfeeling bitch. Keaton gets to put her down with an audience-pleasing speech about actors being concerned with Truth and Art, adding that critics don’t create things, they only destroy. Since the critic is meant to be intelligent, it’s hard to know why she doesn’t point out that actors shelter behind roles, while critics put themselves on the line with their own opinions, week after week. Actors are interpreters. Critics such as William Hazlitt, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde deserve to be treated with a lot more respect for their creativity than actors, especially bad actors.

Anyone who accepts the film’s thesis that theatre is intrinsically more “artistic” than Hollywood movies hasn’t been to some of the dodgy theatre productions I have, or any of the first-rate Hollywood movies. Inarritu is making a phoney dichotomy between two kinds of entertainment.

Hollywood insiders will enjoy some of the movie’s in-jokes. I liked one line when Naomi Watts whinges “I wish I had more self-respect”. To which fellow-thespian Andrea Riseborough replies, in a rare moment of self-knowledge, “You’re an actress, honey.” But nothing in Inarritu’s films, which have included Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, has shown any evidence of a sense of humour or lightness of touch. Regrettably, this is no exception.

Though many critics have called it a dark satire, really the movie is like some gigantic, therapeutic guilt trip for the actors, all playing roles not a million miles from themselves. Edward Norton, who plays a difficult, egotistical method actor who despises Hollywood, starred in a failed superhero movie, The Incredible Hulk. Emma Stone, who plays the hero’s insecure, drug-addled daughter, began her career in trash like The House Bunny and has played since in some ropey films including The Amazing Spider Man, Gangster Squad and Movie 43.

Naomi Watts, who plays a film star who’s making her Broadway debut, also chose to star in the notorious Movie 43 and the awful Princess Di biopic, Diana.

Andrea Riseborough, who plays the hero’s mistress and is also appearing in his Broadway play, last starred in the Madonna vanity production, W.E. and the abysmal Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster Oblivion.

Zach Galifianakis, who plays our hero’s longsuffering manager, volunteered to appear in The Hangover part II and III, for God’s sake.

They should all know about “selling out” to the movies, but they’re on dodgy ground condemning actors who do. A good many of these, such as Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Robert Downey Jr, try to do artistic things in between the crowd-pleasers, and what’s wrong with that? The two are not, as Inarritu seems to argue, incompatible.

Early on, there’s a scene in which a bad actor is removed from our hero’s play because he can’t manage nuance and keeps going “over the top”. What Inarritu doesn’t seem to notice is that, for the rest of the movie, most of his actors do precisely the same, without punishment. The fact that Keaton is as hammy as anyone only adds to the confusion; is he meant to be great or mediocre? Whatever he is, it’s hard to feel anything for a character who’s so relentlessly self-absorbed.

For much of the movie, Inarritu seems to think his leading man is right to hate himself. Keaton is much given to grandiloquent self-love (“I am bigger and better than anyone else”) and depths of self-loathing (“I look like a turkey with leukaemia”). It’s clear that he desires fame above all else, and he has an alter ego in Birdman costume who wishes he would get back to making superhero movies that people will pay to see.

At other times, Inarritu bulds up the superhuman qualities of his protagonist. He can float in the air at will. He can move things by telekinesis. He can fly. At first, it seems as if his superhero powers are all in his mind, but confusingly there are other moments when other characters – even, in the end, his unimpressed daughter – appreciates that he is, indeed, superhuman.

The film’s appeal to curmudgeonly critics may also be that it doesn’t contain a single likeable character. All the actors are self-obsessed, but then the critic is too, and the hero’s damaged daughter. This means that ordinary people will lack empathy for just about everyone, and start looking at their watches long before the end. I can’t really discuss the last 30 minutes without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that the bombastic climax pretty much encapsulates the expression “on the nose”.

The film is astonishingly sexist. When Watts objects to her co-star (Norton) raping her on stage, this is treated for laughs as an over-reaction. The movie goes on to suggest that she’s secretly a lesbian, and that the man who attempted the rape is the sensitive and vulnerable one. He even gets to find love with a much younger woman who knows about the rape attempt but doesn’t find this off-putting in the slightest.

Critics have also commended the film’s style: a succession of long tracking shots. The camera seems always to be on the move, just as it was in Russian Ark and a lot of films by Resnais, Antonioni and Abbas Kiarostami that reached art-houses without making much impact on the general public.

I guess this is meant to signify that it is the opposite kind of film to anything created by Michael Bay: action films with the frenetic cutting of an MTV music video. But long takes are just one technique amongst many alternatives; and it’s annoyingly unclear here whether they are meant to be realistic or expressionistic.

Some critics have compared the film to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but that’s unfair to the earlier film. Black Swan was consistently expressionistic, and pretty much everything was seen through the eyes of its psychologically disturbed central character. That’s not true of Birdman. The camera keeps cutting away from Keaton for scenes with other characters that appear totally naturalistic, even when (as in the pivotal scene with the critic) no one is behaving remotely realistically. Every time Keaton’s point of view is lost, the film loses impetus and focus.

As if to emphasise his own cleverness, Inarritu uses his music soundtrack conventionally for the most part but playfully inserts some moments when a percussionist appears in a scene with no explanation or rationale. What’s this meant to be? A reminder that this is only a film? Is it yet another reference to Godard, who went in for this kind of thing in his prime? Hey, maybe it’s a reference to Blazing Saddles, where Mel Brooks had an entire orchestra suddenly appear in a desert.

The film it really reminded me of was Bob Fosse’s inventive but tiresome All That Jazz, though that at least had some decent singing and dancing in it. Both films were satirizing showbiz but were at least partly in love with its excesses. Both films end up, however unintentionally, as celebrations of overweening egotism.

Inarritu emerged as one of three Mexican directors who wowed critics with their early films. Alfonso Cuaron made the best-looking of the Harry Potter films and the recent blockbuster Gravity, while Guillermo del Toro has been responsible for such Hollywood films as the Hellboy movies and the underrated Pacific Rim. It’s hard to see Birdman as much more than an envious, ill-judged sideswipe at his competitors.

The central joke in Birdman isn’t the one that you might expect; it’s that this attempt at a condemnation of Hollywood vacuity is, in fact, pretentious, overblown and sensationalist itself.

There’s a memorable scene early on where Norton’s insufferable Method actor accuses Keaton of overwriting and needless repetition, and suggest he cut away the flab to reveal the point of the piece. It’s just as well Inarritu and his three co-writers didn’t do that, or they’d have no film.

Birdman pleased the critics because it isn’t the kind of pap they’re used to. It’s a different kind of pap altogether: pretentious, pointless and far too pleased with itself.

Key to Symbols