Film review: BIRDMAN, from ‘Built For Speed’

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s idiosyncratic serio-comic take on the machinations of theatre, the decline of cinema and the fickleness of celebrity, Birdman, has been the toast of international film festivals meaning it has arrived on our shores carrying the weight of enormous expectation.  That sort expectation often leads to disappointment and that is to some extent the case here.  While this inventive and visually striking movie is a master class in film-making technique, it’s emotionally distant and more of an admirable achievement than an involving cinema experience.

Michael Keaton plays Riggin Thomas an actor who, funnily enough, had a successful superhero franchise called Birdman in the early 90’s. With his film career now in the toilet he attempts to grab some thespian cred by adapting, directing and starring in a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  The play, however, is a disaster before it even opens with an actor seriously injured on set and a boorish and pretentious star (Edward Norton) harassing both his female co-star (Naomi Watts) and Riggin’s reformed addict daughter (Emma Stone).  To make matters worse New York’s most feared theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) is threatening to kill the play with a poison pen review.  Amid the chaos, Riggin battles both crushing doubt about his value as an artist and as human being and a taunting conscience which often appears to him as his old Birdman persona.

Birdman is without doubt a stunning technical achievement with glistening, pristine cinematography, remarkable tracking shots that weave through the catacombs of the theatre and New York streets and realistic special effects seamlessly integrated into the story.  Innaritu has also set himself the fascinating task of making the film look as if it was shot in one long take.  This technique may simply be Innaritu flexing his artistic muscles but the apparent absence of cuts also suggests the inescapability of Riggin’s situation.

The film also features a collection of superb performances from its lead cast.  Keaton is suitably haggard, bitter and world weary as Riggin.  Edward Norton is amusingly vain and arrogant as the method actor Mike.  Emma Stone who plays Riggin’s snarky daughter Sam is wonderfully contemptuous of the theatre’s prima donnas.  Naomi Watts is fine as Lesley the play’s lead female but unfortunately her character fades into the background during the film.  Playing (slightly) against type Zach Galifianakis is sporadically funny but not particularly memorable as the play’s producer Jake.

Despite its technical qualities and fine performances the film lacks emotional clout.  A quirky and flippant tone pervades the film which makes it very difficult for audiences to become emotionally involved with Riggin or the other characters.  Also, throughout the film, the question gnaws at the viewer ‘is a washed-up Hollywood star someone we should really care about?’ I’m not sure that Innaritu wants the audience to ask that question particularly as the answer seems to be ‘no’. 

While the interpersonal drama may not entirely succeed the film does a wonderful job of skewering current trends in film.  Those who care about cinema will applaud the way the film critiques the, cgi-drenched, superhero action paradigm currently dominating the movies.  Also as a dissection of the theatre and its seething and perilous power games, however, Birdman succeeds wonderfully and makes a fascinating companion piece to that other cinematic examination of theatre in 2014, Roman Polanski’s Venus in Furs.

Birdman isn’t exactly a case of style over substance as its insights into the state of film and theatre are often potent but it doesn’t entirely succeed as human drama.  It will, however, make one of the more unusual, intriguing and worthy films touted for Oscar accolades this year.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama/ comedy.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Release date: 15th Jan 2015.

Running time: 119 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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