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Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)

nullBirdman is
audacious, original, and bold. It’s also inscrutable, off-putting, and
overlong. To be sure, there is much to admire in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s mad
jumble of a movie, which takes place in and around the St. James Theatre in
Manhattan and unfolds as if it were one long, continuous take. This visual equivalent
of an author’s stream-of-consciousness narration is impressive, and sometimes
arresting, but it can also be exhausting. The same can be said of the
protagonist, a wildly insecure actor named Riggan Thomson. (His peculiar moniker
is emblematic of the film as a whole. Riggan?)
Michael Keaton delivers a bravura performance as a once-successful Hollywood
star, about to make his Broadway debut, who is desperate for approval. Most
fans still associate him with the superhero character called Birdman he played
years ago: now he wants to prove himself as an actor, once and for all. He’s
even directing the play; an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

Birdman-Emma StoneNothing about the film is conventional, which is often to
its credit. But at the outset, I was distracted by Antonio Sanchez’s loud,
propulsive drum-solo score. As the film went on I acclimated, somewhat, and even
found it appropriate to the material, but like many other aspects of the film,
it required considerable effort.

Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander
Dinelaris, and Armando Bo also infuse their high-pitched film with elements
of mysticism and the supernatural. Some may interpret these moments—or indeed,
the entire narrative—as Keaton’s fever-dream. In any case, they constitute one
more unusual ingredient that sets Birdman
apart. 

Birdman-Zach Galifianakis

At the heart of this dramatic maelstrom is a gallery of
sharply-etched performances. Keaton leads the way, and he is matched by Zach
Galifianakis, in an atypically serious role as the actor’s producer and
long-suffering best friend; Edward Norton, as an actor who joins the troupe at
the last minute and proves to be a loose cannon, on and offstage; Naomi Watts,
as his loyal leading lady; and, in the juiciest part of her career to date,
Emma Stone, as Keaton’s daughter, who’s just out of rehab and working for her
father. One key scene she shares with Norton on the roof of the theater could
prove to be a career game-changer for the actress. Other key female roles are
admirably filled by three of the brightest talents on the scene: Amy Ryan,
Andrea Riseborough, and Lindsay Duncan.

Towering above them all is Keaton, in a virtuoso turn the
likes of which he hasn’t had in ages. (Think of the unforgettable performance
he gave decades ago in Beetlejuice:
this has the same incredible intensity.) There’s just one problem: I’m not sure
why we’re supposed to care about this isolated, self-absorbed, unfathomable character.

Birdman has a lot
going for it, and certainly shows off the talents of its director and star, but
it’s all over the place—visually, tonally, emotionally. I admire many of its
components but just can’t hop on the bandwagon with critics who have deemed it
brilliant.  

9 comments

  1. dman says:

    you are a genius Mr. Maltin! Don’t always agree (though usually) BUT you are spot on with this film. Michael Keaton’s acting was very good but yet I didn’t find myself caring for his character. And I agree the story was all over the place which made it hard to watch at times. Watched a 2nd time & same experience so won’t be buying this.

  2. Nils says:

    I just watched this last week in anticipation of the Oscars. I agree with Leonard’s assessment. "I admire many of the components", but in particular when comparing it to the likes of Boyhood (or even Whiplash), Birdman’s central character has just a fraction of the layers any of the other movies’ characters have. Riggan is unrelatable, clischéd and so "self-absorbed" that I still wonder how that ending should create any emotion. But then again, maybe that was the point?

  3. she bangs says:

    where is your turkey to 5 star ratings? all your reviews have no more ratings unlike in your book which i bought every year since 1990

  4. Indie Film Minute says:

    Interesting commentary on what we feel is a spot-on review. We often feel that reviewers who see extraordinary amounts of movies have to guard against being over saturated. Such a condition presents itself by wild love for out-of-the-box films, just because they are different enough to wake up deadened senses. With such a personal and observant review, we see that Leonard does not suffer from this malady. The only thing that we would add to the review, as we agree with it thoroughly, is that the film, all in, is a masterpiece.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    I have disagreed with Mr. Maltin very rarely in the vast amount of time I have watched films and read his reviews. If I didn’t respect his knowledge in this area, I would not be so vehement in my disappointment.

  6. Cameron says:

    Or maybe he’s paid to voice his own opinion about a movie and not regurgitate what we want to hear about it.

  7. Jeffrey says:

    Perhaps Mr. Maltin has watched too many conventional films most recently that this one is well outside his comfort zone. That would be understandable if one was just part of the viewing public, for a professional film critic, that’s not a valid excuse. Maybe he should have watched this film a second time before posting this regrettably myopic review.

  8. Marc Schenker says:

    What a pleasure it is to read the honesty that is a Leonard Maltin review, as opposed to the over complicated crap that characterizes the whole Indiewire experience.

  9. It's over. I'm here. says:

    Thank you Mr. Maltin for being one of the few critics to recognize an “okay” movie that did not even have the balls to be a true “magic realist” film. Naturally, it won Best Picture at the Oscars against films like THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL since the current generation of Americans is human trash from top to bottom. Just look at our presidential candidates. Lol.

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