Tuesday 13 January 2015

Review: Birdman

Director: Alejandro Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zack Galafianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan
Running time: 119mins

Director Iñárritu’s fifth feature is also comfortably his best since Amores Perros and fully deserving of the critical plaudits and numerous award nominations it has received.

It’s as multi-layered as a trifle, full of ideas and observations about a great many subjects – the insecurities of encroaching old age (“Sixty’s the new thirty, motherfucker!”), the fragility of mental health, absent fathers, selling out, the need to find meaning and validation in life, celebrity and vanity, the absurdity of social media… I could go on. It also skips from one genre to the next with nonchalant ease – black comedy, serious drama, magical realism. At times it plays out like a West End farce, Norton and Keaton even losing their trousers a couple of times like refugees from a play by Ray Cooney. At its core, though, Birdman strikes me as the work of a man sick to the back teeth of the direction Hollywood is currently moving in.

Keaton is Riggan Thomson, the washed-up former star of the massively successful superhero franchise, Birdman, which he quit after three films. In one last desperate attempt to resurrect his career and win the critical plaudits he feels he deserves, he writes, directs and stars in an over-earnest stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Thomson sinks every penny he has into making it a success but the venture seems ill-starred. A male co-star is almost killed by a falling light and his replacement (Norton) proves to be a colossal pain in the arse with one eye on upstaging Thomson and the other on his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Stone). Worse still, Thomson is in the middle of a nervous breakdown – Birdman is alive and well in his subconscious and hell-bent on making a comeback…

I don’t think we’ll be seeing Iñárritu directing an instalment of Iron Man or The Maze Runner any time soon. The director – and co-writer – is happy to parade his disdain for the domination of the blockbuster for all to see here. Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner cop critical barbs for their involvement in superhero – or other franchises – and one character even calls the blockbuster’s current hegemony “cultural genocide”.

Feeding in to that idea is the casting of Keaton himself. He was, of course, Batman in two hugely successful Tim Burton films in the late-80s/early-90s before turning his back on a third instalment. Since then he has appeared in laughable old tosh such as Need for Speed, Herbie Fully Loaded and Jack Frost. In fact, to be brutally honest, the last time I saw him in anything worth a damn was Tarantino’s Jackie Brown… in 1997. Let’s face it, he *is* Riggan Thomson.

So Keaton’s casting is almost beyond perfect and you have to wonder how Iñárritu ever persuaded him to take the role. After all, the director seems to be suggesting that appearing in blockbuster franchises not only diminishes you as an actor but puts a stink on you that is difficult to eradicate. His contempt is underlined when we finally see Birdman himself, a ridiculous creation ripped right out of a Stan Lee fever dream, covered in feathers with stupid bird feet. Say what you like about Keaton but he's bloody game.

The film comes at an interesting time. On the one hand, superhero films have never been more popular and are just starting to receive serious attention from critics (it won’t have escaped Iñárritu’s notice that Guardians of the Galaxy only last week picked up an adapted screenplay nomination from the influential and prestigious Writer’s Guild of America). On the other, there’s a growing feeling these mega-franchises are not only bad for business (the number of people going to the cinema in North America has fallen to its lowest level in two decades) but are actually responsible for the death of mid-budget filmmaking in the US

Regardless of where you stand on the debate, Birdman is an inspired, passionate, witty film. 
It’s packed with memorable lines and stand-out moments, while Norton and Stone – both of whom also have superhero films on their CVs – are every bit as good as Keaton in a top-notch ensemble cast. The much-discussed one-take tracking shot is used effectively and inventively, Antonio Sanchez’s percussive, jazzy score a delight. Put simply, the whole thing soars.
Rating: WWWW


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful


  1. I'm looking forward to seeing this but I hope it's not too mean-spirited about the current wave of superhero films, as some of them are quite good, and I'm in no mood for any snobbery.

  2. I think it's possible to enjoy the film even though it is pretty clear that Iñárritu is no fan of Marvel or blockbusters in general. There's so much other stuff going on in Birdman that if one theme or idea doesn't float your boat it doesn't matter because something else will be along any moment.