About an hour into Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the much-lauded movie from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the main protagonist, a wannabe playwright and actor named Riggan, enters a bar where snooty theater critic Tabitha Dickinson is drinking. She explains to Riggan that she plans to pan his play without having bothered to see it. He launches into a furious tirade: “You know, you just label everything. You’re just a lazy fucker! There’s nothing in here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions hacked up by even crappier comparisons!” To Iñárittu, it’s a moment of victory for his hero Riggan, as Riggan calls the critic out on her bullshit. To the viewer, the moment is meta: almost as if Iñárritu, expecting some negative reception to his vision, tacked that scene in there to prevent critics from giving the film too much flak. The movie gambles a lot with similar moments of self-reflexivity throughout, but never pays them off in remotely interesting or stimulating ways.
On February 22nd, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography to Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)–a title that, for whatever reason, leaves the “Or” outside the parentheses, technically making the real title Birdman Or. And now that Birdman Or has won the industry’s top prize, it’s time to take a giant step back and seriously consider and critique its many flaws.
The film, co-written by Iñárritu, revolves around failed actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). In his heyday, he played the wildly popular Birdman—a movie superhero whose costume and voice seems to come straight from the deepest recesses of the DC reject pile. Now in 2014, he’s a middle-aged, forgotten footnote of Hollywood, taking refuge in the Broadway theater scene, where he plans his comeback by adapting a Raymond Carver short story for the stage. The movie details Riggan’s travails as he attempts to put on the play as an ensemble of people plague the production. These include an insane method actor (Edward Norton), Riggan’s ex-addict daughter (Emma Stone), his fast-talking lawyer-friend (Zach Galifianakis), and a blonde newbie to the Broadway dog-eat-dog world (Naomi Watts). Add to all this the constant conversations Riggan has with a voice inside his head—that of his demented Birdman alter-ego—and you have the ingredients for a black-comedy that’s sure to rival Robert Altman and Billy Wilder’s best movies with its virtuoso, hard-edged look at the wacky business of show… right?
Well, not quite. In fact, not at all. Iñárritu, after delivering the far-superior think-pieces Amores Perros and Biutiful, takes a giant misstep with Birdman Or. The ground that he gained with his previous efforts is squandered as he is given an unchecked amount of artistic license to turn in an unsatisfying effort. His film is littered with flat characters, a childish script, and a dubious visual gimmick—the one-take—that fails to justify its own existence beyond “looking cool.”
The characters in the best film satires–Altman’s fluid and viciously hilarious The Player, for instance–are, in the end, human. They are intermittently quiet, obnoxious, funny, larger-than life, yes–but above all, they’re grounded in some real emotion. In Birdman Or, however, Iñárritu sets the volume to a screechy 11, having all actors perform at the same loud, ungrounded level. The result are people who you don’t really care for in the end, because they don’t feel real. They’re not even people–rather mere playthings: loudspeakers for Iñárritu to bark at us through, with sadly nothing substantial to say. Their too-on-the-nose dialogue brings to mind of the worst excesses of Aaron Sorkin’s monologue-driven universe. Which is sad, because the cast is a healthy mix of character and chameleon actors, the kind of cast Wilder or Altman would assemble for a film like this. At first, the actors’ speak-shouty style of performance sounds and looks great. But as the film trudges on, it becomes clear that their efforts are for naught.
Under Iñárritu’s misdirection, an otherwise terrific actor like Michael Keaton is reduced to an overwhelmingly boring presence. The rest do not fare better. Norton is an obnoxious stand-in of the worst qualities of method actors. He’s a mutant Brando with no nuance. In one particularly disturbing scene, Norton’s and Watts’ characters are under a blanket on an on-stage bed, waiting for Riggan’s character to come out and surprise the faux-lovers. Norton proceeds to manhandle and force himself on Watts. The reason? So that when she emerges from under the blanket, she has a “genuine” reaction to Riggan’s character barging in on them with a gun. It’s an ugly scene: both because of its simplification of the rigors of method acting for the dubious sake of satire and because of the utter lack of empathy displayed by Iñárritu on behalf of the Watts character. Not only is her attempted-rape played off for laughs afterwards (the audience is more focused on Norton’s enormous erection), Iñárritu immediately subjects her to an equally-demeaning lesbian scene that is more sensationalist and exploitative than erotic in even a slightly interesting way.
But you can’t really blame the actors. They are nobly trying to make sense of the film’s biggest thorn: the script. It boggles the mind that it took four writers to come up with such obnoxious drivel. From the opening line—“smells like balls”— Iñárritu and his merry band of scriptwriters set their low standards of being needlessly crude for crude’s sake. And when the screenplay isn’t sophomoric, it inundates the viewer with ugly lines that are jarring, preachy, and unchallenging. Dialogue like “Come on people, don’t be so pathetic. Stop looking at the world through your cellphone screens: have a REAL experience!” and “That guy is the worst actor I’ve ever seen in my life; the blood coming out of his ear was the most honest thing he’s done so far” coddles viewers into feeling like they understand the subtext of the situation. But it’s not because the screenplay is subtle or multi-faceted: it’s because the lines are so blatantly didactic, there’s no other way to interpret them.
After a while, it becomes easy to ignore this dialogue because it is so patently obvious to what the screenwriters want to convey. Okay, we get it. Showbiz is filled with smart people forced to do terrible things. Actors must go to great lengths in order to impress uncultured audiences and pretentious critics. So what? We understand that from the first ten minutes of the film, but it mercilessly goes on for another 110 minutes hammering the point home.
But by far the worst scene of Birdman Or is its “takedown” of critics. It’s Iñárritu’s way of repelling any criticism: for Riggan’s play and Iñárritu’s own abrasive film. Such a needless deflection of the faults of one’s own film is both misleading and repulsive. It is misleading in how it presents the critic vs. artist debate, cheaply generalizing the critic’s role—that they simply put together a string of buzz-words to sound chic and smart—by portraying the theater critic as a bitchy and callous non-human. And it is repulsive in the way that it guilt-trips anybody into not criticizing the flaws of the film, else you end up like Ms. Dickinson.
But do not be fooled by the trumped-up grandeur of Birdman Or. You can criticize it. You can complain about its technique. You can be less-than-amazed by its intentions. And you’d be much better off watching the far-superior films that clearly inspired Iñárritu: The Player, John Cassavetes’ gritty backstage drama Opening Night, and Bob Fosse’s fabulous musical All That Jazz, to name a few. You’ll come out of those films feeling challenged by immense vision. Unfortunately, after Birdman Or ends, all you’ll feel is seasickness, and all you’ll come out with is a drum-induced migraine.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight