What does it mean to be an artist? To create art? How does one measure the creative process, and who is qualified to do so? Does the average audience want to listen to two hours of the film industry examining their trade and the deep meaning they feel they add to the world? Probably not.
While “Birdman” approaches these topics with a seriousness that can only be parody, the overall message is heavy-handed and too esoteric for the average theater experience. This is one to be watched in the comfort of your own home, where you can dissect the components and try to divine the deeper meaning of it all. See? Even the review of this film is getting pretentious.
BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself. (Synopsis by Fox Searchlight)
The challenge of “Birdman” is to decide if it is being serious in its artistic dissertations, or if the whole thing is supposed to be a riff on self-exploitation in the name of the creative process. Or maybe Keaton is just trying to restart his career. The film evokes the 2008 Jean-Claude Van Damme opus “JCVD,” but with deeper themes and multiple layers. Keaton is the driving force and the film exploits the actor by connecting script and reality. Many of the jokes reference Keaton’s real-life career and are seamlessly weaved into the character that Keaton is playing. Coupled with that is the internal monologue of Keaton’s character and psychotic episodes of super powers he imagines he possesses. There is a disharmony created for the audience that keeps you guessing about the intentions of the film. It is a delicate balance and Iñárritu manages it deftly.
The real surprise is the performance of Norton. It is easy to forget how good an actor he is until you see him in something like this. He is competing with Keaton, who is excellent here, and still manages to dominate the screen. This is a slightly unconventional character for him; a caricature of an actor obsessed with himself and his methods. Norton plays it with an egotistical glee and risk that is unmatched in some of his other work. Whatever character restraints he imposed in “American History X” or “The 25th Hour” are discarded. This is a distinct, constructed role for Norton who plays a critical role in the examination of the self-obsessions of our world. Norton is the bridge between the younger generation of viral sensations and Keaton’s character’s traditionalist approach. But this triangulation of viewpoints is discarded by the third act, as Norton simply disappears from the film. This leaves his plot arc unfinished, but it is a necessary course adjustment to focus the movie back on Keaton in the final scenes.
Above all else, “Birdman” is an experimentation in imaginative film-making from Iñárritu. At times this skates dangerously close to being too clever for its own good. But there is also a self-awareness about the absurdity of what’s presented—to the point that during a dreamlike sequence of internal monologues, the film calls its own pretentiousness out by switching gears to a fantasized action scene. In that scene, Keaton’s imagined inner voice stares out at the audience and asks why they aren’t making an actual “Birdman” action film instead of this artsy crap, all while helicopters crash and explosions proliferate the street in the background. Just as quickly, it is all swept away and you are again immersed in the heavy hand of the “art” film.
If you sign up for this expecting a full-on comedy, then you’re probably signing up for the wrong thing. The film is a meditation on the meaning of existence and the impact of man. There are some laughs, but this isn’t “Death to Smoochy.” In many ways, this is only going to be funny for people old enough to remember Keaton’s career at its height. The younger generation will be wondering what is funny, just as Emma Stone’s character does in the film. See, it’s life imitating art. Or life is art. Or something. This one requires at least two viewings to get it all in.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: See it, but rent it. This one is too heavy to digest in the theater environment.
THREE STARS out of four.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, and brief violence.
Runtime: 1 hour and 59 mins.