Birdman online movie review - Black Swan's more pretentious self-impressed cousin
Oscar voters and film elites adore movies that they think are about them or reflect their view of the industry, and if the legitimate stage can be woven in to give it a more literate cache, so much the better.
Sometimes the results can be a true classic (see All About Eve). Other times, the result is Birdman, or as I like to call it, Black Swan's more pretentious, self-impressed cousin.
Riggan Thomson is an actor of certain age, whose most recognizable feat was playing a superhero on screen, before his career stagnated. He views the lead role in a stage melodrama on the Great White Way as being his avenue back to legitimacy, but finds hurdles at every turn, including but not limited to, his ex-wife Amy Ryan, dysfunctional daughter-cum-fetch-and-carry-assistant Emma Stone, pushy agent Zach Gallifianakis, unbalanced co-star Naomi Watts, temperamental co-star Edward Norton, and some fairly ludicrous appearances by Riggan's screen alter ago, Birdman, which clues us in fairly early that Riggan is a few bricks shy of a load. He pretty much crosses the edge when make-it-or-break-it stage critic Lindsay Duncan telegraphs her intention to pan the play and trash Riggan's career.
For all of the awards thrown at this film and all of the "serious" people it panders to that think it is the equivalent of inventing the wheel, one would naturally assume that the film is particularly insightful and enthralling. One would be incorrect. The film has all of the subtlety of a bulldozer and the depth of a nearly dry puddle. Director Alejandro Inarritu (who inconceivably was awarded two consecutive best directing Oscars for this mess and the underwhelming The Revenant) seems far too self-impressed with what he places on the screen leaving the viewer with the uncomfortable impression of a completely average person masturbating to themselves in the mirror and thinking it is a legendary moment. His grandiose and bombastic fantasy sequences are both sops thrown to the average film-goer who may have somehow nodded off during the endless dialog sequences and inside jokes to artsy-fartsy film fanatics who lambaste mainstream cinema as crass.
Watching the emotional and psychological disintegration of a main character is only fascinating if the film can draw us in to the character's plight from the start and works best when the character is initially fairly normal. As in Black Swan, Riggan is initially depicted as so tightly wound and hair-trigger unbalanced that he is off-putting immediately and then when he starts his descent, it has barely the same interest as passing a traffic accident.
Gallons of ink have been spilled about the irony of casting former Batman Michael Keaton as Riggan, with numerous citing Batman as his downfall and this film as his resurrection. Truthfully, Keaton turned in one fairly solid performance as Batman - the same year he gave a strong performance in Clean and Sober. He appeared beyond bored when returning for the sequel, Batman Returns, and then opting out of further sequels. He followed with a gaggle of fairly forgettable character turns and outright bad lead work before fading away for a long time. His career was far more impacted by bad choices/roles than his association with Batman, a situation fairly obvious when one views the kind of Oscar-caliber actors showing up in comic books films of late and being feted for their work both there and elsewhere at the same time. Keaton's work here is shamelessly unrestrained, hammy and unbelievable. I think he is far better in his restrained and underrated turn in the subsequent Spotlight.
Both Norton and Stone have some decent moments from the supporting cast, but part of the problem with this film is that there is literally no moment that seems natural. Every sequence is scripted and played like it is being put before an acting class to teach them how to hit every emotional note...and it feels like it. Never do we forget that we are watching a not especially good melodrama, featuring actors directed to pitch everything to the rafters doing BIG ACTING. Nothing in the film is especially credible, foremost the embarrassing confrontation scene between Riggan and the critic, whose near psychopathic hatred of Riggan has her planning to destroy him and the play before she has even seen it, ostensibly because this is what the writers imagine that high-falutin' critics do.
The ending (or endings since there are a few too many) is particularly hard to endure and foolish. Out of his mind with stress, Riggan takes to the stage with a real gun in an effort to kill himself. Despite holding the gun to the side of his head and pulling the trigger, the film goes on to a further scene wherein he only ostensibly blew off his nose. A feat which earns him a rave review from the critic and adulation from his inner circle, while no one seems to think he intended to commit suicide. This then allows him jump out the window to his death...or fly out the window to oblivion...or whatever. I doubt much of anyone cares at that point since the film wore out its shaky welcome at least a good hour beforehand. Ideally, this film can function as a cautionary tale of what kind of terrible waste of time cinema elites pretend to love to make them feel superior, that leaves everyone else cold and scratching their heads in embarrassment for their high-minded brethren.