Friday, November 7, 2014


 2.5 / 5 

Nested uncomfortably between genius and crazy, Birdman feels as uncomfortable as the winged Spandex suit worn by the title character.  Sometimes it works, often it doesn't, in its attempt to graft magical realism onto a backstage Broadway drama.

Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton) used to be a billion-dollar-grossing action star, but he's through with all of that.  Now he just wants to be taken seriously as an actor, and has sunk every bit of artistic ambition he has -- not to mention ever dollar -- into writing, directing and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

When we first see him, Thomson is literally floating on air as he gets ready to put the play into previews.  It's not long, though, before everything starts going awry.

First, one of the supporting actors, who's not matching artistic expectations, gets knocked out of commission when a light conks him on the head.  In short order, a replacement with serious acting chops (Edward Norton) replaces him -- but he's a loose cannon who's also involved with the leading lady (Naomi Watts).  The show's producer (Zach Galafianakis) is putting pressure on Thomson to make the play a hit, and the constant presence of Thomson's sullen daughter (Emma Stone), just returned from rehab, isn't helping things.

Through it all, Thomson is losing his grip on reality.  He's hearing voices in his head that sound suspiciously like the Birdman character he used to play on screen and that taunts him with accusations of artistic fraud.

Then there's the matter of the New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to bring the box-office-superstar-turned-serious-actor to his knees and ruin his show.

It's enough to make a guy go nuts, and that's exactly what seems to be happening to Thomson.

But it's not enough for director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, who begins the movie by showing the fiery descent of a meteor (or maybe it's the Space Shuttle Columbia breaking up?), a visual symbol he  repeats throughout the movie.

Seeing a man descend into madness, to succumb to artistic ambition or commercial pressures, is enough for Keaton, who reminds us what a seriously edgy and unpredictable actor he was before he donned his own rubber suit.  Keaton knows what he's doing in Birdman, and he does it well -- so well, the movie feels substantially less interesting and too literal when he takes off on flights of fancy.

The bustling, supremely well-choreographed backstage drama (Iñarritu has shot the film to appear to be mostly one long take, even though it is set over three nights) touches on the stories of its actors and their relationships -- then abandons them, leaving the audience with only Thomson to focus on.

He's not an un-interesting guy, but the truth is: When he starts flying (not a spoiler, look at some of the posters) or practicing super-powers that he may or may not have, Birdman abandons the multi-character story it's worked so hard to establish and focuses instead on Riggins' flights of fancy.

The Broadway story works surprisingly well.  The magical realism looks and feels splendid.  But Birdman too frequently feels like shots from one unrelated film were grafted onto the core Broadway opening-night plot.  It doesn't feel cohesive, and sheds little light on Thomsan's mental state.

Is he really cracking up?  Or is he just experiencing momentary fantasies?

The best scenes are the ones that happen on-stage and in the hallways of the theater (including the lobby, in a terrific scene that fins Thomsan locked out of the theater during a production).  They're bold and energetic, they tell a strong story.  It's the rest -- the flying, the Birdman suit, the super-powers Thomsan seems to have: They don't add up.  They're nice touches, but belong in a different movie. Fantasy sequences in a drama are one thing, but when they comment on a character's state of mind, it's better if your audience enjoys them rather than walks away feeling confused.

Birdman is filled with astonishingly good actors.  It tells a good, worthwhile story.   And then, as soon as it gets off the ground it comes crashing down again.

There are moments of artistic inspiration and extraordinary accomplishment in Birdman.  There are quite a lot of them, actually.  They just don't quite blend with the magical story elements, and while Keaton is undeniably good, the rest can't be said for the whole film, which walks when it should soar -- and soars at precisely the moments it probably shouldn't.

Viewed Nov. 6, 2014 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks



  1. My comment didn't go through on first attempt. Let's try again...

    I think if you open your mind to another possibility, you will find you may like the movie more, or at least understand more.

    Assume, just for a moment, he's not going crazy.

    The meteor in the sky is an allusion to Superman's origin story.

    The "bitten by a thousand jellyfish" is an allusion to other Superhero origin stories like Spiderman.

    The reveal of his nose at the end is meant to tell you his nose, which should be mangled and slowly healing, has already fully healed.

    She looks up, because she sees him flying.

    Conclusion: he really is a superhero. He's been fighting this truth all film, and finally come to accept it at the end.

  2. Mark, I just noticed your comment, apologies for the delay. Assuming that he is a superhero, which the movie seems to go out of its way to at least hint is the case, I have to wonder: Why would a superhero spend his days being ridiculed for poor acting choices? He would seem to have better things to do. I enjoyed the movie's backstage stories more than I did the primary story of an actor (or superhero) cracking up, and still, even on retrospect, feel the final scene felt tacked on. "Oho! He's actually a superhero" doesn't do much in my book to validate the movie as much as make me scratch my head why they bothered to make a movie about acting, instead, assuming you are right. It would be like finding out at the end of "All the President's Men" that Woodward was actually Superman in disguise. (Or would it have been Bernstein?)