A former movie star has a breakdown before the opening of his play.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014
Days before the play he’s adapted and is directing and starring in is about to open, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is suffering from delusions. He’s invested all his money into the play, but an accident a few days before previews are about to start leaves him scrambling to replace one of his lead actors. He hires Mike (Edward Norton), an arrogant but brilliant actor who makes the preview week difficult by drinking on stage, attempting to rape his co-star on stage, and antagonising Riggan. Meanwhile, Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, is working as his assistant, and his co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) might be pregnant with his child. The building pressure starts to get to the already fragile Riggan, who imagines that he can move objects with his mind and is haunted by the voice of his most famous role, the superhero Birdman. Riggan spirals out of control as opening night looms large and the critics’ responses could save his career or savage it.
Birdman is an interesting mix of pretentious ideology and cool cinematography that ultimately has very little to say in very stylish ways. It’s not a film for the masses, and I feel like Hollywood is patting itself on the back for patronising this movie, even though it’s really more of a circle jerk than anything else. Inarritu is utterly contemptuous of superhero movies here, which is both a shame and unfair, as last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier had an awful lot more to say about the state of America, interpersonal relationships, and facing personal challenges than this film does. As played by Michael Keaton, Riggan Thomson is a delusional narcissist, and rather than exploring the concept of mental illness this film almost glamorises it. Edward Norton’s antagonist serves mostly to look Riggan look better in comparison; the film’s treatment of his attempted rape and Naomi Watts’ reaction to it was downright disturbing. (She’s crying, she’s told she’s overreacting, and then she’s kissing a woman five minutes later. Really. No, really. Also, he’s rewarded with Emma Stone.) There’s a film critic who is savagely and unfairly horrible to Riggan, giving him the opportunity to wax poetic about how brave and important actors are, in one of the film’s more eye-rolling moments. There’s something bizarre about how this movie operates, wherein women who face actual problems are ignored or treated as crazy by whiny man-babies who are so focused on being relevant again and getting good reviews and being “authentic” on stage that they’re blind to real issues they’re having.
That being said, the movie looks fantastic. Shot as if it’s all one continuous take, it’s shot through with some magical special effects, culminating in that one scene you’ve probably seen already where Riggan walks down the street with Birdman over his shoulder. The drum soundtrack keeps the movie moving along, pulsing to its own unusual beat. There are some very funny moments and some that border on insightful before spiralling into pretentious douchebaggery again. There are a few truly transcendent moments; when we follow Riggan from backstage to the stage and he delivers a monologue to a full theatre, the film crackles with energy. Keaton is actually at his best when he’s funny, while his dramatic moments didn’t quite seem to stick for me. Emma Stone has a brilliant, cutting scene where her character yells at her father; she’s strong throughout, in spite of her character being a mess of icky tropes. Edward Norton bristles and bites in what is undoubtedly a good performance of a despicable person. The movie, for lack of a better term, walks to the beat of its own drum, with an energy and an aesthetic that is challenging and unique. I just wish it wasn’t attached to such an ultimately disappointing concept.
Birdman on IMDb