"You've always confused love with admiration."
Art is subjective, and nothing brings that concept into sharper focus than the act of critiquing art. Critics must walk a tightrope between understanding the artists' intent and then judging them on how well they conveyed that intent. It's especially disheartening to see a film in which a major subplot involves a heartless critic having a showdown with an artist, yet right about two-thirds of the way through Birdman, that is exactly what happens. I'm frankly a little sick and tired of hearing the argument that critics bring nothing to the table when it comes to art, and simply make up their mind about something before they even lay eyes on it. It's the kind of argument one would expect to crop up in an M. Night Shyamalan film, which incidentally is precisely what happened in Lady in the Water, but for a film like Birdman, which passes itself off as high art, it feels grossly out of place.
Birdman is so consumed by its own meta-ness, it's own never-ending argument about what makes great art, and what an artist must sacrifice in the name of creating that art, that it ends up not really being about much of anything. In the first bit of knowing business surrounding the entire project, the film casts Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an actor best associated with a superhero character he played three decades ago. Thomson is in the midst of mounting an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway, but prior to the first preview, the show is in major trouble.
It seems as though everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and to top it off, Thomson is haunted by an inner voice belonging to his superhero alter ego who constantly tells him that he's doomed to fail with this endeavor. In and of itself this is an intriguing idea to hang an entire film on, but the film's director Alejandro González Iñárritu has never been one for subtlety and he's got something to say, dammit! The film deftly balances a number of characters that are involved both in the play and in Thomson's life. There's Lesley (Naomi Watts), the self-doubting actress on the verge of a breakdown just as she's about to achieve her lifelong dream of performing on Broadway. There's Lesley's boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), a highly respected but egomaniacal actor called in to replace another actor who was injured by a falling light during a rehearsal.
Every great character needs a love interest, so we're given a naive young starlet (Andrea Riseborough) who is carrying on an affair with Riggan, and may or may not be pregnant with his child. Riggan's estranged daughter (Emma Stone) is also in the mix, thanks to a job as his personal assistant which only further drives a wedge between her and the man she felt did a terrible job raising her. How about an overworked and overstressed producer (Zach Galifianakis), who is trying to keep his star happy while ensuring that the show actually gets up on its feet in front of a paying audience? Or maybe an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) still enamored with him despite his countless flaws? It all sounds like a mess of characters constantly coming in and out of the film and muddying up the narrative, but that's actually the thing that the film does best, balancing these various characters and their neuroses.
Where the film falters is in its "look at me!" bravado that finds the entire film constructed to seem as if it is one long, unbroken shot. The characters become tools to literally move the story from one scene to the next, and some of these characters--mostly the women--end up being given short shrift. It's a marvel that Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuelle Lubezki (Gravity) manage to make it as seamless as it actually is, but once you realize that it's a gimmick and not a necessity to the story, the shine completely comes off. Despite the best efforts of this technique and a bombastic, overwhelming, non-stop percussion score by first time composer Antonio Sanchez, the film just has no drive to it. There's no engine in this film, and that's the real problem at play here.
My biggest gripe with the film, however, is its insistence on making straw men out of the media and critics in general. A scene near the beginning of the film finds Riggan hosting an impromptu press junket where the topics range from his decision not to make Birdman 4, to his rumored use of baby pig semen to keep his youthful appearance, to a completely disposable argument about French philosopher Roland Barthes. It's a nightmare collision of ideas meant to convey the vapidness of the modern media, yet it goes to such great lengths to convey this point that it's almost wholly meaningless in the end.
The film's fatal flaw occurs, as I mentioned earlier, about two-thirds of the way through the film when Riggan and an icy theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) have a showdown in a bar. The critic attacks Riggan for being nothing more than a movie star who thinks he can act, and informs him that she intends to pan his show before she's even seen it. This leads to a very violent argument about criticism, and how critics risk nothing while artists bare their souls and lay their reputations on the line in the name of what they do. Cast aside the fact that Ratatouille did this entire argument much better, and in an infinitely simpler way, and look to Iñárritu's past to see that this screed has been a long time coming.
As he has morphed from the wunderkind director of Amores Perros into a much-maligned one trick pony, he's allowed bitterness to get the better of him. He's got something to say about art, and he's going to force everyone to listen while casting a critic as the villain in the argument. It's cheap and ridiculous, and lessens the impact of his message. If you're truly wanting to silence film critics, create a piece of art worthy of praising rather than bombarding them with shame over having an informed opinion that they can elucidate using concrete examples of where you failed to make your point. Stop telling me about great art and show me some already. It's getting late in the film to be making platitudes.
Having said that, Ińàrritu's greatest asset is his cast. Keaton truly lives out the message he's forced to deliver in that hamfisted monologue, and taps into his well of resources to give an incredibly well-rounded performance. Keaton is always at his best when playing a caged tiger of a man, just waiting for his chance to break free and tear into the scenery, and he gets the chance to play both of those things here. Watts, Ryan, Riseborough, Galifianakis, and especially Stone all get their moments to shine as well, and all of them deliver very good performances.
It's Edward Norton that stealthily and handily walks away with the entire film, however. Playing an even more thinly veiled version of his real-life persona, Norton has one of the toughest jobs of any actor. He has to play an actor with an immense ego, but even more than that, the talent to back that ego up. He's confrontational, he rubs people the wrong way, and he just generally doesn't care what anyone thinks of him--and I'm not talking about Edward Norton here, I'm talking about his character. He knows this character so well, and plays him so adeptly that it's hard to think that he too isn't tapping into some stuff that hits entirely too close to home.
Much like its main character, Birdman suffers from too much of an identity crisis to be considered a great film. It wants so desperately to be loved because it's spilling its blood for you and offering up great personal sacrifices in the name of art. However, much like Riggan's ex-wife tells him, it confuses love with admiration. It isn't enough for you to admire Birdman, you have to love it, otherwise it was all in vain. Art in any form is not an all or nothing endeavor, and it's sad to see a film that has moments of sheer and utter brilliance collapse under its own weight. I would have admired it a whole lot more were it not trying so hard to make me love it.
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]