Note: This review was originally posted on my film criticism Patreon, I Don’t Spoil The Movie, in December of 2014. I’m not editing the piece itself, even though my opinions on the film may have changed in the years since this was written.
I want to thank all of my patrons and fans again- not just for your financial support but also for your advice and encouragement. I’m still so proud of the work that I wrote for IDSTM for one reason: I wrote reviews for people I cared about to read. Thank you.
Birdman or The Unexpected Value of Metatext
Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is a drama starring Michael Keaton as himself, poised to debut on Broadway after a disappointing string of films post-Batman
Wait, no, fuck
Birdman, or The Unambiguous Veiled Commentary on Celebrity Culture, is a comedy starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, acting opposite A Bunch of Other Actors Playing Exaggerated Caricatures of Themselves. Birdman is more of a gratuitous emotional live-tweet than a feature film, and it works.
Birdman is a lot of genres and a lot of things, and some people will love it and other people will, inevitably, feel it was a waste of their time. Michael Keaton is the center of the film, but he isn’t the star- it’s a movie without a central focus, because it operates in a universe where everyone considers themselves the main character. The film is intercut with a subconscious tongue-in-cheek commentary of itself through music and atmosphere. It’s a heady, immersive trip through a bizarre universe of sensory overload.
Without Michael Keaton (playing a version of himself), however, the movie wouldn’t work. Birdman is a layer cake of metatext, slyly commenting on everything from superhero culture to “theater as the highest art”, and Keaton’s character is at once villainous yet sympathetic. You’re able to both love and hate him simultaneously as he fucks up everyone’s life, including his own.
Because that’s the biggest secret of Birdman, the virtuous ignorance of the parable: it isn’t about superheroes, careers, Hollywood. It’s about mental illness.
If you’ve ever felt unnerved by the voice in the back of your head, your “critic”, Birdman will probably scare the shit out of you. The dialogue is spot-on as Keaton argues with his own inner critic, “Birdman”, and wrestles with the physical manifestation of his demons. He knows he has an audience, because he’s always performing. It’s a sick, stream-of-consciousness lapse into insanity, and he plays with the film’s nonexistent fourth wall to no end: dictating the flow of diagetic versus non-diagetic music, changing plot elements to suit his whims. He’s the Director of his own Life, and he is unwilling to relinquish control of that, to anyone.
Ed Norton plays well opposite Keaton as a parody of himself (Norton is rumored to be hard to work with and demanding). Emma Stone is Keaton’s daughter, fresh out of rehab with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl perspective on life. Both actors embrace the stereotypes in their roles, creating some interesting (yet a little too) predictable encounters.
Birdman is a film that works to capture the realism of art, the truth behind the curtain of a documentary. It exists in one nearly-seamless take (shot in thirty days), moving at a frenetic pace to skim the surface of a handful of days in a few people’s lives. It is both charming and incredibly unnerving in the way that all black comedies are. It uses gimmicks and a twist that’s almost too predictable, but three other twists that catch you out of left field. While you sit, thinking to yourself that you’ve figured out the ending, the film is always a few steps ahead of you, waiting around for you to catch up.
Black Swan captured some of these themes of realism in performance more elegantly and effortlessly, but Birdman seeks to prove something else entirely. It takes your perception of art and twists it around insanity, until the two are almost indistinguishable. And, in doing so, it illuminates your very understanding of it all.
You’ll like this film if
You think that the uncut book ending of Fight Club was better than the film adaptation (trust me), you have a deep love for psychological mind-fuck film, or if you count Perfect Blue as one of the most innovative and thrilling movies you’ve ever seen. Also if you enjoy other things Ed Norton has been in, because wow he has quite the knack for picking these sorts of projects.
You will not like this film if
You have a strong attachment to superhero culture or the idea of high art and cannot stand to see it made fun of. The film delves into problematic themes a lot (rape, suicide), so if you have trouble with that and aren’t sure how you’ll react, I’d suggest watching it at home where you can pause. Point is: none of the people in this film are very great human beings. Keep that in mind.