Birdman—Movie Review

Birdman 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.

Emma Stone (Photo by Alison Rosa - Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film)

Emma Stone (Photo by Alison Rosa – Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film)

Nothing 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.

Zach Galifianakis  (Photo by Alison Rosa - Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film)

Zach Galifianakis
(Photo by Alison Rosa – Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film)

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024