Box Office Democracy: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
There is a scene near the end of Birdman’s second act where Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) delivers a brutal tirade against the idea of theater criticism. He talks about how safe the life of a critic is and how audacious it is of them to judge the work of actors. This puts me in a bit of a precarious place as a critic because these are words coming out of a strong character in a brilliantly executed film and they’re basically calling me an asshole if I have a problem with any of the performances in this film. Fortunately I have hardly any complaints about Birdman, acting or otherwise, and I can continue my life as a critic free from fear of the ire of Michael Keaton.
Birdman is about, nominally at least, the attempted adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Riggan Thompson, an actor most famous for playing the titular Birdman in a series of movies 20 years ago. There are a myriad of different pitfalls along the way to opening night but it all feels like a wireframe for what the movie really wants to do which is have a series of deep conversations and intercut them with brief little jaunts in to the pleasurable absurd. I see where this might sound like I’m bashing the screenplay but I assure you nothing could be further from the truth; it’s a remarkable piece of work featuring some amazing dialogue and a scope that feels quite wide especially when you consider the constraints of a film that rarely leaves one location.
There’s a concerted effort by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to make all of Birdman look like one take. I assume this is some kind of attempt to mirror the lack of cuts one gets in theater but considering the roll Lubezki has been on recently I would also believe he showed up to the first production meeting and said “Fuck it, I’ve just sort of been itching to try something new,” and no one wanted to tell him no. They use a bunch of tricks to establish passing of time and I assume even more tricks to hide the myriad of cuts that would make shooting something like this even remotely possible but it feels more authentic than I dreamed possible. It’s a subtle effect, in fact I would be surprised if the majority of the audience is going to notice, but it gives the movie a sense of flow and a feeling of churning pace that keeps an otherwise very talky film from feeling bogged down.
It’s not a perfect film though and there are a few things that I just can’t shake. Edward Norton comes in to this movie as a whirling dervish playing respected theatre actor Mike Shiner but his part steadily shrinks until he spends the third act practically as a glorified extra. I wanted that character to build to something but instead he kind of reaches a turning point and refuses to go forward or backwards and it feels frustrating. A lot of the cast feels similarly adrift at one point or another and I would have gladly taken more scenes with either Amy Adams or Zach Galifianakis both of who seem tragically underused.
Philosophically I’m not sure this film has the moral high ground it wants either. The film seems to take a strong stance against the modern obsession with superhero films, the critic I reference in the opening paragraph decried Hollywood’s output as nothing but “cartoons and pornography,” as a shallow grab for cash but this film seems so tailor-made to win awards that I wonder if it’s any different. It ticks so many boxes on the Academy Award checklist (sharp satire of the entertainment industry, reclaiming the career of an older actor, ambitious visual style) that I can’t ignore that that’s a kind of commercialism too. Birdman is an outstanding film, certainly one of the best I’ve seen all year, but it’s trying to fit a mold every bit as much as Iron Man 3 was.