Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Birdman is a film that demands to be talked about, for better or worse. It’s about showmanship (and a literal show), so is the fact it’s as attention-grabbing and controversial as it is a surprise? I ultimately enjoyed the film (only flat-out disliking two scenes), but I do feel it was somewhat hollow and masquerading as a better film than what it was.

Note, this review will contain spoilers.

Emmanuel Lubezki does great work here emulating a continuous take; and I think that it was an excellent choice by director Alejandro González Iñárritu to have the film shot that way as it really emphasises the frantic, in-the-moment feeling of being backstage at a theatre, and of Riggan’s own feelings of anxiety, feeling trapped, and so on. I did, however, find the amount of image stabilisation was distracting at times.

Iñárritu assembled a fantastic cast, and they all excel at their roles, from a stunning lead performance from Michael Keaton, to Edward Norton nailing a character amusingly similar to himself, to Naomi Watts (a personal favourite actress of mine) doing strong work with a lot less to work with than what the leads got.

The film is full of metatextual moments; the very premise intentionally calling back to Keaton’s status as the film persona of Batman in the 1990s. It doesn’t end there though, with Edward Norton playing a character amusingly similar to himself (tales of Edward Norton trying to wrestle control of films from the director or lead actor aren’t uncommon), and Naomi Watts sharing a scene with Andrea Riseborough recalling one of the more arresting moments from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. These self-referential aspects worked for me, even the arguably self-indulgent superhero stage sequence near the end. My problems with the film are mainly with the critic scene and the ending.

birdman_poster

I really felt like the scene of Riggan confronting the critic was awful. It was such a reductive, ham-fisted, and absurd criticism of…criticism. While I’d have no problem with just the character espousing the bizarre viewpoint, I’m a great fan of film and literary criticism and I was already irritated knowing that many would champion the scene as a real call-out of criticism as a profession. Am I being unfair in disliking the scene just because I disliked a character’s viewpoint? Perhaps, but in a film so concerned with metatextual references, it worries me that the viewpoint might have had a bit more belief behind than just Riggan’s.

The ending really didn’t work for me. I’m a great proponent of audience readings having at least as much importance as authorial intention, but I feel the ending was left so thematically vague that basically anything could be read into it. There’s plenty of films with ambiguous endings that I love, and there’s plenty of films where the endings are vague in terms of thematic coherence and resolution, but I feel Birdman was too focused a story to really mesh well with such an ending.

I think Birdman excels as a fun, very well-made and well-performed exploration of the “washed-up actor looking for something more” figure. I feel it works less well when it reaches for something grander.

I give it three loaded guns, and a little Birdman action figure.

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