I went to Birdman knowing very little – that it’s about an actor trying to reinvent himself by doing a Broadway play, and that it’s one of the year’s most acclaimed films… and that’s about it. I hadn’t read any reviews. Usually, I think that’s a good thing – I often prefer to be taken by surprise. In this case, I’m not so sure.
I’d imagined something along the lines of All About Eve – a portrait of an aging actor in the form of a love letter (perhaps seasoned with a little cynicism, but a love letter nonetheless) to the theater. Silly me.
Almost a week later, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Birdman – more specifically, around my feelings about it. I’d put it in the category of movies that received a lot of praise, including from people I respect – but which I found nearly unbearable. (Synecdoche New York is another that comes to mind; I’d be tempted to add I Heart Huckabees, except I refuse to believe that anybody sane actually sat through it.)
In the case of Birdman, I can quickly list the elements I enjoyed. The performances, by and large – I think almost everybody is good in it, and it’s nice to see Michael Keaton have another Big Moment. (On the other hand, I continue to be mystified by the gauche Naomi Watts.) The camera work – mostly virtuosic, extended tracking shots – is pretty amazing, even if it overstays its welcome, and sometimes distracts from core elements of a scene. It was great fun to have such a detailed, intimate backstage look at Broadway’s St. James, though I’m not sure how much of what we saw was real and how much a creation of scenic designers). And I’m always a sucker for films about the theater.
The latter is also why I disliked so much of Birdman, which is a compendium of clichés, starting with the notion of a mystical link between creativity and mental illness, an idea that seems central to writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, but which is unexplored in any meaningful way. Then there’s the play within a play – Keaton’s character has put together a project based on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but the bits of it we see look ludicrous. Are we supposed to think this is crap? It’s not clear.
At times, Iñárritu seems also to be embracing passé notions associated with method acting. Ed Norton, playing an edgy but charismatic star brought in to rescue the production, spends most of his on-screen time lecturing Keaton’s character about what “real” theater is. If we’re supposed to think there’s something deep and insightful in the drivel Norton spouts, the theater is doomed. (I preferred to think of the character as an in-joke based on Shia LaBeouf’s crash-and-burn participation in Orphans last year, which mercifully ended before LaBeouf ever made it to the stage.)
And of course, there’s a demonized critic character – it’s nearly impossible to make a movie about the theater without one, and here, it’s even more offensive than usual. Played by a grim-looking Lindsay Duncan, Tabitha Dickinson from the New York Times is a bitter old drunk, who scrawls her reviews longhand while sitting at a bar. She’s already made up her mind to pan Keaton’s play without having seen it, simply because he’s a former movie star who has (as Tabitha judges it) no business doing theater.
I, on the other hand, have actually seen Birdman. And I think Iñárritu has no business making a movie about theater, a form he appears not to understand.
Perhaps Birdman will be a runaway hit at the Oscars. For me, I have already closed the curtain of my mind on Birdman… or should I say, on What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It was a short run, but not short enough.