Thursday, November 27, 2014

Film Review: Birdman (2014)

Birdman is a cheap box of chocolates; the kind that has too many pieces with squishy, oozy, fruity centres and no nutty ones and the chocolate tastes like it might have been recycled from last year's unsold Easter bunnies. But you eat the whole box because it's chocolate and it's sweet and it's right there in front of you on the coffee table. What makes Birdman more enjoyable than it has a right to be is that it absolutely stuffs you with the empty calories of stylish cinematography, panto levels of overacting, and some waspish comments about fame and celebrities.

Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan, who was once famous as Birdman, the star of a superhero franchise a la Batman. But that was a long time ago and now he wants to make his artistic mark by writing, directing and starring in a stage version of a Raymond Carver novel, and on Broadway, no less. His extremely Method-y co-star, Mike, is played by Edward Norton. Almost all the action takes place backstage and onstage as Riggan tries to keep his vanity production on the rails. He has money worries, the Norton character is temperamental, his personal relationships are rocky, and his biggest problem is that he's suffering from delusions. Riggan has come to believe (when he's alone) that he has superpowers. He also gets visits from his Birdman alter ego who badgers him to take up the role again.

There's always something compelling about tales of backstage life and conflict, and Birdman mines that vein quite effectively. This side of the story is helped even more by its visual style, which is made up of almost constant tracking shots that transition seamlessly from one location in the theatre to another, and even across time gaps of hours and days. The claustrophobic, rabbit warren character of a large theatre has probably never been captured so beautifully. There are also a lot of closeups, which is a bold move since the camera probably risked being damaged in the frenzy of scenery-chewing that goes on by Keaton and Norton. They don't give great performances, they give loud, busy, twitchy, theatrical performances that are demented but quite entertaining. As a bonus there are some sharp jabs at celebrities such as Meg Ryan and Ryan Gosling.

Where Birdman stumbles is when it's characters talk about Art, Life and Acting. The characters have nothing original or interesting to say on these subjects, although they do it with a lot of spittle-flecked energy. What's more annoying is that only Keaton and Norton are allowed these deep thoughts; the female characters are left to talk about their relationships with men. So that's a score of 0 on the Bechdel test. The one woman who's not confined to relationship chatter is a vicious drama critic, and it's clear she's only allowed this privilege because she's of a certain age. Naturally enough, Riggin and Mike loathe her.

Birdman is scatter-brained, clumsily sexist, and more than a bit pretentious, but the look of it, its frantic energy, and some very amusing bits (Riggin speed-walking through Times Square in his underwear) at least make it better than most actual superhero films.


Anonymous said...

Smart review -- you captured many feelings I had about the film. And you're right that it doesn't come close to passing the Bechdel/Virginia Woolf test.

Unknown said...

Waiting for your review of "Inherent Vice" - sort of a cross between Dirty Harry and the Big Lebowski. (I was hoping for more of the latter)

Anonymous said...

I so agree! Felt like I was the only one

Marlene Detierro said...

Light as an anvil, Birdman is a sometimes dazzling, often infuriating act of gaseous virtuosity. I was never sure if I should applaud or roll my eyes. A lot of the time I was doing both.

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Leigh said...

I think there's soemthign in Birdman that everyone can relate to.