Birdman Is Pretentious, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Fun

Intermission: Birdman: social

The latest by critics’ darling Alejandro Iñárritu is a fun ride if you can get over the fact that the film can’t get over itself.

Birdman posits a particularly interesting dilemma for any critic: Is it fair to call a film “pretentious” when it fancies itself as a satire of pretentiousness in the first place? It starts out mocking fallen movie stars who turn to live-theater for career-rebooting legitimacy, then turns to mocking Broadway culture for its own self-righteous dismissal of the movie scene, then wants to take seemingly the entire world to task for its embrace of mindless action pablum — all in the form of characters spouting monologues and soliloquies that will sound extremely fresh, meaningful and profound to smarmy teenaged philosophy buffs the world over. It’s a movie about people who all have their heads wedged squarely up their own asses, and either doesn’t realize it’s right there with them or assumes that the acknowledgment inoculates it.

Which isn’t to say it’s not well made. Or well acted. Or that it’s not fun to watch and chew over for an hour or two after it’s concluded. Just that I’m dreading having to hear every would-be intellectual with a framed photo of their High School drama club explaining what a profound statement it is on whichever of its thuddingly on-the-nose longform observations most spoke to their existing biases about art, culture, etc.

In other words? Welcome back, Alejandro González Iñárritu — the enduring critics’ darling auteur whose career to this point exists to answer a single all-important question: How talented, arresting and clever does art have to be in order to negate how insufferably pretentious it is?

The film is nominally “about” a struggling former movie star named Riggan Thomson, once famous for a trilogy of films about a superhero called Birdman, angling for credibility and a comeback by writing, directing and starring in a serious Broadway production. He is played by Michael Keaton, who of course once played Batman, and that’s the entirety of that joke. Keaton is fine, because he’s always been a good actor, but one gets the sense that the film (or, rather its director) is a little too pleased with the supposed meaningfulness of the juxtaposition. Apart from having been Batman, Keaton’s persona (real-world or celebrity) doesn’t resemble Thomson’s situation much, so the character’s myriad other quirks (he hallucinates being able to move objects with his mind whenever he feels like things are out of his control) are more interesting than the constant “Get it!? Because he was Batman!!”

On the other hand, the guy who does show up playing rather decidedly himself is Edward Norton, having a little too much fun as a preening, self-obsessed, critically-beloved actor who sweeps in to fill a sudden cast vacancy and immediately starts asserting control over the script, direction and other castmembers while waxing obnoxiously about the “authenticity” of the theatre. He’s a hoot to watch, especially if you’re coming in with any familiarity to his storied reputation as a “difficult” actor to work with… until it becomes clear that his principal function is to assure us that Iñárritu thinks Broadway’s self-serious contempt for a mere movie star like Thomson is just as irritating as the unctuous junket press who just want to ask traffic-baity questions about Birdman (speaking of which, it’s weird that global-thinking indie hero Iñárritu goes immediately to Hollywood’s favorite new stereotype, the Asian Guy With Obnoxiously Mainstream Taste).

The film runs on a pair of showy gimmicks. First, it’s edited to look as though it was all captured in a single unbroken tracking shot… but not in real time, so days/hours pass seamlessly as we follow characters (usually Thomson) from place to place in what otherwise plays out as moments. It’s an impressive technical achievement — award worthy, even — but eventually you start to wonder what the point is outside of using Thomson’s mental-unwellness to justify a cool visual trick (in the language of movies, there does not exist an aesthetic gimmick that can’t be described as “the perfect visual illustration of a troubled psyche”). Still, it does serve the primary goal of keeping things moving even though we really are just watching good actors have too-cute-by-half debates with one another.

The other is that Thomson is mainly arguing with himself — or, rather, a gruff-voiced, aggressive version of his own voice that only he can hear. The voice points out the obvious desperation and pretense in his project (of course it’s in a “storied” old theater, of course it’s some method-y “50s blue-collar domestic urbanites drinking and shouting” Raymond Carver adaptation) and urges him to follow his baser instincts: movie stardom. This is, of course, a manifestation of Birdman himself which the film curiously treats like it’s supposed to be a surprise despite being thuddingly easy to guess even if it hadn’t been in all the trailers.

But while Iñárritu is content to spend time making gloomy Film Studies 101 observations about Hollywood’s superhero obsession (a psychedelic vision of a hallowed Broadway stage overwhelmed by Times Square street-performers battling in grimy Avengers and Transformers costumes) and the pretentious hypocrisy of Broadway acolytes, it turns out his real vision of evil is an all-powerful theater critic (what decade is this supposed to be, again?) who’s already decided to “kill” Thomson’s play sight-unseen. (Meanwhile, Norton’s “good guy” moment is telling said villainess off about the grandeur and bravery of all actors — even Riggan Thomson.) And yes, you’d be correct in assuming that it’s building toward a “point” that no one seems to have had the heart to tell the filmmakers they’d been beaten to by Ratatouille.

There’s also some places where pop-culture point-scoring just plain goes off the rails: “They put him in a cape, too?” laments Thomson, having been informed that Jeremy Renner is among the actors not available for his play because he’s busy making comic books movies; a weird observation, since Hawkeye doesn’t have a cape… and neither does Birdman, so what’s his frame of reference supposed to be for that quip? Elsewhere, Naomi Watts and Andrea Risenborough as the play’s female leads segue into a moment of lesbian experimentation that arrives so awkwardly as to feel like a deliberate “gag,” but I’ve yet to determine what the “joke” is meant to be. General send-up of girl/girl sex as cheap-titillation in theater and films? A reference Watts having played a similar ingénue in Mulholland Drive? Hanging a lampshade on the film’s obvious similarities to Black Swan?

If it sounds like I’m being too hard on the film despite overall liking it, it’s only because the film sort of asks for it. It’s a fairly lightweight premise (has-been movie star arguing with the “ghost” of his most famous role? That’s not arthouse — that’s a sitcom!) dressed up for the Grownup’s Table with a pocketful of pat observations (“Hollywood is tacky!” “Broadway is pretentious!” “Critics are failed wannabe creatives!”) but swaggers around like it’s got Cloud Atlas-sized balls and near-total self-awareness.

Bottom Line: Decent little head-trip movie, once you get over its unwillingness to get over itself.

Recommendation: Adjust your expectations away from the film’s own self-aggrandizement (and the expected critical-press slobbering over anything Iñárritu so much as glances at) and there’s enjoyment to be had.


About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.