The tale of a washed up, former star, famous for playing a costumed superhero, making a last desperate bid for relevance and respect by appearing in a pretentious Broadway play, Birdman is a smugly nauseating exercise in meta-storytelling that feels just as empty as the mindless Hollywood pap it’s taking a swing at and every bit as masturbatory as the vanity piece its protagonist is staging.

Tired of being typecast, the former star of the Birdman superhero franchise, Riggan Thomson (former Batman star Michael Keaton) sinks his own money into mounting an expensive Broadway production (which he writes, directs and stars in) of a Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But with the cash running out, disaster strikes when one of his actors is incapacitated before the first preview and Riggan is forced to replace him with the estranged husband of his lead actress (Naomi Watts), a grandstanding Method actor (grandstanding Method actor Edward Norton) who quickly makes a play for Riggan’s ex-junkie daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who’s working on the play as way of reconnecting with her father. As opening night looms and a vicious theatre critic sharpens her poison pen intent on sabotaging the production, the walls of reality start to crumble as Riggan’s superhero alter ego begins to manifest itself…

A poorly aimed satire of the ever-present tension between art, talent, entertainment and celebrity, Birdman just never takes flight, mistaking irony for depth, serving up a largely laugh-free magical realist black comedy with pretensions to SAYING SOMETHING IMPORTANT about the artistic life the equal of John Cassavetes’ brilliant Opening Night or Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz or even Aronofsky’s Black Swan but instead feels more a tired theatre farce tarted up with a few visual flourishes, like Terry Gilliam directing Noises Off, the film’s humour largely restricted to casting talented actors who’ve appeared in comic book movies (Keaton – Batman, Norton – The Incredible Hulk, Stone – The Amazing Spiderman, Watts – Tank Girl) as broadly analogous versions of their public personas.

So reknowned Method douchebag Norton plays a douchebag actor so committed to the Method he sabotages a performance by guzzling gin and getting pissed because that’s what his character would do, man while Watts plays a hack actress who has a quick lesbian interlude because we all liked her lesbian hack actress in Mulholland Drive. Stone meanwhile is as sassy and adorable as she always is and Keaton glowers and tries to talk about anything other than his superhero alter ego, Birdman, while constantly being recognised as Birdman. Much as the real Keaton has for the last twenty years.

And that’s Birdman’s biggest problem – it’s obvious and it’s terribly, terribly earnest, its committee-written script as nuanced as the committee-written script of a Transformers flick, the characters neither particularly likable or believable or, in the case of most of the women (Stone apart), even proper characters, defined instead by their shrillness, their hysteria, their level of pregnancy. Mere cardboard cut-outs, Iñárritu’s talented cast wander around a fairytale New York constantly declaring who they are and what they represent while decrying the intellectual wasteland of Hollywood as represented by Keaton’s self-flagellating Riggan.

And yet, aside from Birdman’s central visual gimmick of appearing to be a single, long CGI-assisted single take, Iñárritu’s constantly restless camera roaming Manhattan’s streets and the theatre’s labyrinthine passageways, the movie only really comes to life in those moments where fantasy breaks through into reality and a steampunk robotic giant bird tears up a New York street while screaming civilians dodge explosions and crashing helicopters. It’s a bravura moment but, like all the best Hollywood blockbusters, it’s one you saw in the trailer.

There’s a self-satisfied smugness about the film, a phoniness. The single smooth take is phony, a CGI cut-and-paste job that gives the illusion of seamlessness, the length of takes reinforcing the artistic and technical integrity, the holy artistry of the stage performance, while the visual gimmickry that papers over the cracks serves to create a visual, immersive, fantasy reality the theatre cannot possibly achieve. The script is phony, lacking subtlety, relying on characters (the deluded director, the philandering leading man) that wouldn’t be out of place in your average theatre farce, Brian Rix with F-words. The performances are phony, none of the actors (again the luminous Stone the only possible exception) delivering a portrayal of the rawness, the truth, their characters are shooting for even before Lindsay Duncan’s panto wicked witch critic delivers her vitriol-laced monologue about the mindless pornography of Hollywood entertainment and the dumbing down of the theatre by slumming megastars which merely serves to make you realise that Iñárritu probably doesn’t get to the theatre much, or even read many theatre reviews, his vision of Broadway feeling reheated, borrowed, from the likes of All About Eve with no real connection to reality. Because Iñárritu isn’t really making a film about the theatre.

When Stone’s Sam rants about the smug, privileged, middle class, middle aged, white people who’ll fill Riggan’s theatre, she may well be talking about the audience for Birdman. I’m just not sure if Iñárritu knows this. There’s always been a thudding obviousness about his work. At least his Hollywood work. He makes BIG, IMPORTANT films like 21 Grams and Babel that are about BIG, IMPORTANT themes and his approach to light comedy here is every bit as obvious.

Which makes me wonder; have I missed the point?

Not the point of Birdman, which has no real point, but the point of Iñárritu? Perhaps his entire mainstream Hollywood career has been an act of subversion, a piece of performance art, the directorial equivalent of Shia LaBeouf recent antics? All this time, while he’s been making his BIG, IMPORTANT, OBVIOUS films, perhaps he’s been taking the piss? Perhaps his BIG, IMPORTANT, OBVIOUS films have merely been parodying BIG, IMPORTANT, OBVIOUS films? Perhaps, all this time, Alejandro González Iñárritu has been, perpetrating a massive prank on the arthouse audience? Perhaps, if this were true, Birdman would be worth watching.

But it would definitely have been a far more enjoyable film had the part of Edward Norton been played by Shia LaBeouf…


DVD Review: Birdman
2.0Overall Score
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