What with me being “Mr. Behind-the-times” these days, it shouldn’t surprise you that I only just got to see Birdman, the Michael Keaton-helmed movie that’s been making a lot of serious buzz, and winding up on a hell of a lot of yearly top ten lists. Having seen the film, it isn’t hard to see why. Birdman is furiously acted, a technical marvel, and deftly written and cast. So why is it that I feel a bit cold? Mostly, I think it’s the hype. Birdman has been getting so hyped you’d think the film dispenses candy corn and handjobs at every screening. And while I can see the reasons behind the hype, I think in my case the hype may have been a detriment to my enjoyment of the film. Oh sure it’s good, great even. But I feel like those expecting the transcendental experience that my colleagues in film criticism have been promising may end up a bit disappointed.
Rather than the adaptation of the Hannah-Barbara cartoon turned Adult-Swim comedy that its title implies, Birdman is actually the story of an actor famed for playing a bird-themed superhero in a trilogy of films. Now a tired, washed-up wreck, he hopes to return to the limelight by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play. Casting Michael Keaton in the lead role was a stroke of genius, and gives the film a very self-reflective quality, almost like his own version of JCVD.
Anywho, the film is mostly about watching Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, get closer and closer to breaking down as he’s hit on all sides by a pregnancy scare, a volatile leading man who’s brought in after an accident forces him to recast a major role, verbal assaults from his snarky ex-junky daughter, a (stereotypical) mean-spirited critic, and all the other usual problems that go on behind the curtains at any Broadway show. All the while, his self-doubts and insecurities eat away at him, threatening to finally shatter his already frayed sanity.
The big “hook” behind Birdman, besides the on-the-nose casting, is that the film is shot in a series of insanely elaborate long takes — around five of them, though I may have lost count. Long takes are something that are almost guaranteed to get film nerds grunting and groping for tissue, and the long takes in Birdman are certainly impressive, complex and full of solid acting. But what struck me as the most interesting thing about the long takes here are that they didn’t actually take place in real time. Characters will move from one room to another and all of a sudden it’ll be the next day, or a camera movement will take us from Riggan sitting alone in his dressing room to him being interviewed. It’s a really interesting device, and more than the length or complexity of the long takes, I think this way of playing with the normal rules associated with long takes as a formal style is the film’s most striking feature. And even without this stylistic device, the long takes in Birdman are still breathtaking in how flawlessly they’re pulled off. There may very well be cuts hidden in there somewhere, and the takes aren’t quite as long as they seem. But even so, they’re incredibly impressive to watch, and the levels of coordination and the implied skill of the steadicam operators are mindboggling.
The acting, as you no doubt have heard, is rock solid across the board. Keaton undoubtedly gives his strongest performance in recent memory, often getting precariously close to Beetlejuice style mania but never going over the line. Given how much the role mirrors his own history, it’s easy to see that he poured a lot of himself into it. The supporting casts are all great, Edward Norton standing out as the eccentric, temperamental diva of a leading man, Naomi Watts as his frayed girlfriend/co-star, and Emma Stone as the all-attitude bad girl, a role she could really play in her sleep by this point.
If any area needs improvement it’s the script, which tends to wander a bit. Rather than focusing solely on Riggan, we also get time with Norton, Watts and Stone’s characters, and see Norton and Watts’ relationship begin to break down as he and Stone strike one up themselves. And while all of them do fantastically, I always felt a bit sad when we were wrenched away from Keaton to watch Norton and Stone have their “two damaged people fall in love” romance. Similarly, elements like the pregnancy scare with Riggan’s girlfriend don’t really serve much purpose in the overall narrative, and that plot point in particular gets resolved later on, causing me to wonder why it was even in there to begin with. It never really comes up besides in scenes between the two, and if it were removed entirely I don’t think it would be to any real detriment. It isn’t the tightest script I’ve ever seen, and seems like it would have been stronger overall if it had been firmly anchored to Riggan, with our attention only leaving him sparingly.
Does that outweigh the technical achievements of the film? No. Does it outweigh the phenomenal performances given by Keaton, Norton and co? Absolutely not. Birdman is still a fantastic achievement in film form, one that finds interesting ways to play with devices like the long take even at the same time that it’s exemplifying them. But I feel like it will be best enjoyed by people who are either totally immune to hype or have never heard of the thing, and are going in with no expectations, of greatness or otherwise. Because for me at least, it does have some flaws. Not game-changing ones, but ones that kept it from quite matching the expectations placed on it. Or maybe I’m just disposed to be hostile about a movie where the only real “bad guy” is a critic. I’m only human.