Birdman – “Art” vs. Commercial success is the one-joke idea this overrated claptrap attempts to mine, ad infinitum
“Birdman” is the latest overpraised and over-hyped “art” film by the acclaimed director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Michael Keaton, who was known for playing Batman in the late 80s and early 90s, is cast here as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood actor, once famous for playing a superhero Birdman character in the movies, now making a comeback on Broadway, acting in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
The entire film is shot as if it’s one long take in a cinema verité style. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the behind-the-scenes peek at the technical aspects of a Broadway theater production. Initially, the narrative takes the form of a black comedy in which we’re asked to laugh at the denizens of the theatrical world, all of whom are depicted as deeply flawed.
Riggan’s big fault is that he’s deeply ashamed of “selling out” years earlier when he took on his superhero role. But now, by attempting to mount a “serious” Broadway play, he has a chance to redeem himself. But his Birdman persona keeps appearing in the form of a disembodied voice (and later hallucinations), telling him that he will fail. The idea that there are those performers who believe that “art” is anathema to commercial success, is mocked incessantly throughout the film, but we get the joke early on, and eventually it becomes tiresome.
When the lead actor in the play is mysteriously knocked out by a falling stage light, Riggan is desperate to find a replacement, since previews are about to begin. At first the well known “method” actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), appears to be a godsend that will save the show; but soon it becomes apparent that Mike is exceptionally unstable. We’re supposed to laugh at a character who gets drunk during his first rehearsal and later attempts to rape one of the female actors while they’re on stage, lying on a bed, under the covers, before an audience who misinterprets the scene as comic.
Later, in a bar, Mike puts Riggan down further by pointing out that the napkin that was given to Riggan and signed by Raymond Carver, was given to him in a bar while he, Carver, was drunk. Mike tells Riggan that he’s too untalented for Broadway and introduces him to Tabitha, the vicious Times critic, who later tells Riggan that she’ll never give him a good review because anyone who sells out to Hollywood can never do anything good in the “legitimate” theater. The negative Times critic is just another example of the exaggerated caricatures sprinkled throughout the film, which simply aren’t funny (a more realistic portrait of theater people should highlight both their positive and negative attributes!).
Also in the mix is Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who has just been released from rehab for drug abuse. Riggan receives a double dose of humiliation: first when he is locked out of the theater in his underwear and is forced to perform before the audience almost au naturel and later when he discovers the slimy Mike, has had sex with his daughter.
By the time we experience the “twist” of a “happy ending” at the denouement, there’s nothing left for the audience to laugh at, since Mr. Iñárritu has smugly shot down all of his straw men caricatures. Riggan “triumphs” first when he blows off his nose with a gun loaded with live ammunition and Tabitha then gives him a favorable review, dubbing the performance an exercise in “ultra-realism.” His new prosthetic nose appears to resemble Birdman’s, and Iñárritu has Riggan fly away, now self-actualized, having had a Broadway hit.
The whole idea that commercial success and “art” is mutually exclusive is not borne out by reality. Even Riggan acknowledges that actors like Robert Downey Jr. can be successful in both worlds. So basically “Birdman” becomes a silly, “one-joke” idea, not based on reality nor worth hammering down our throats, ad infinitum.