Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: The curious case of Birdman

Originally published in The Badger

Alejandro G. (formerly González) Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) had the honour of opening this year's edition of the Venice film festival with his highly anticipated fifth feature Birdman. Since I am what Michael Keaton's character would call a "lazy critic," I will start my review by putting a label on it: it's essentially (postmodern) Sirkian melodrama meets the meta-humour of 22 Jump Street meets the ambitious artist narrative from Black Swan. The film is a convoluted but enjoyable stew of ideas, subplots and one-liners. 

In the middle of all this is the former Batman Keaton as Riggan Thomson, essentially a fictionalized version of himself. Twenty years after making his name with a successful superhero franchise, Thomson's career on the way down. As he admits himself, he is not much more than "the answer to a fucking trivial pursuit question." When we meet him, he is about to direct and star in the Raymond Carver adaptation "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway, but preparations are anything but smooth.

First of all, Birdman is very funny and all the performances are excellent. It's great to see Michael Keaton, one of Hollywood's most underused actors, back in the mainframe and able to make fun of his own image. Zach Galifianakis is also very good playing against type as Thomson's squeamish manager and Edward Norton is having a lot of fun antagonising everyone in the role of a pompous method actor looking for truth. The humour is quick, witty and often rings true, especially when targeting show business, celebrity and the modern media with satirical bite. Norton declares that "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" and Keaton complains about budding actors whose "only ambition is to go viral."

It's an enjoyable, weird romp, but I'm not sure it adds up to much more than that. The visual style is simultaneously incredibly ambitious, technically brilliant, fascinating and a bit tedious. Shot by Gravity-cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, there are no obvious cuts in the entire film. The individual scenes play out in a single take and are joined together seamlessly. Antonio Sanchez's drum-heavy score similarly walks a fine line between brilliance and obnoxiousness. 

The story meanwhile is overburdened with half-baked ideas and subplots that don't really go anywhere. Iñárritu can't really decide between a character study and an ensemble piece, so he tries to do both. The film is consequently nowhere near as deep or profound as it thinks it is, which leaves certain emptiness in the middle. Every character is given their own set of issues, but Iñárritu doesn't have the time to explore any of them thoroughly enough. Emma Stone for instance plays Keaton's damaged daughter (fresh out of rehab), who develops some sort of relationship with the Ed Norton character and that's pretty much all she gets to do. In the end, Birdman is an original, fun ride, but not the seminal masterpiece some people make it out to be. I am however looking forward to the inevitable Wingman starring Val Kilmer in a couple of years' time. 

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