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Birdman: Overly Ambitious and Criminally Overrated

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • 2014 23 Oct
<i>Birdman</i>: Overly Ambitious and Criminally Overrated

DVD Release Date: February 17, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 17, 2014 (limited) October 24, 2014 (expanded)
Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 119 min.
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan

Recently certified "fresh" on with a whopping 92 percent of discriminating film critics flat-out loving it, I realize I'm practically swimming against the stream all by myself when I say this, but here goes nothing, readers. Birdman, fantastic cast, intriguing concept and all, is criminally overrated.

That's not to say that it's boring or completely uninspired. Those are two things Birdman is definitely not. But once the novelty of the frenetic camera work has worn off and the writers have exhausted every last Hollywood inside joke, the "What's the meaning of it all?" conversation we're left to have is pretty banal when stripped down to its core.

In the copycat world of filmmaking where sequels, prequels and reboots reign supreme, anyone who appreciates actual, living, breathing creativity can't help wanting to celebrate any film that exhibits even an ounce of original thought. No doubt, Birdman owns its independence from more conventional fare, but so much of it feels self-consciously quirky and in many cases, downright sophomoric.

Populated with lazy laughs that feel more like the product of an adolescent boy's comedic playbook than something belonging to a seasoned comedian, the script's footloose, stream-of-consciousness style quickly grows tiresome. Riffing on everything from Meg Ryan's plastic surgery to Justin Bieber's continued brushes with the law to the seemingly endless stream of X-Men flicks with Hugh Jackman, the film's most embarrassing attempt at humor is when Mike (Edward Norton, Moonrise Kingdom) describes an aging theater critic (Lindsay Duncan, About Time) as having a face that looks "like she just licked a homeless man's as-."

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Really? That’s what passes for funny these days?

The plot centers around a washed-up actor (Michael Keaton, RoboCop) who was once the king of the blockbuster as the titular superhero, something Keaton knows a little something about from his Batman days. His Riggan Thomson is hoping for a big career resurgence on Broadway. And while Riggan seems poised for success by choosing a "serious" play to write, direct and star in (Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), there's trouble from the outset. There's a major conflict with his lead actor, and when he winds up getting hurt in an unfortunate accident, Riggan is forced to hire someone equally demanding but bankable to work with, namely the aforementioned Mike Shiner (Norton).

If working with an actor who insists on having significant creative input isn't challenging enough a mere days before opening night, Mike's daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is fresh from rehab and quite vocal about his failings as a father. His girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) casually mentions she's pregnant and his lead actress Leslie (Naomi Watts, St. Vincent) suffers from self-doubt and needs major ego massage. Add in the pressure of needing a hit and dealing with an annoying alter ego who regularly "speaks" to Riggan, and you've got all the makings of a metaphysical breakdown.

Just like Riggan's road back to relevancy involves starring in, writing, directing and funding his own play, Birdman is equally ambitious in cramming a lot of thematic material into a single movie. Tackling everything from the challenge of living in the present in a post-as-it-happens world, to the struggles of modern-day parenting, to the uncomfortable compromises made for celebrity status, to the folly of critics who aren't "courageous" enough to offer the world anything but cynicism, this film is all over the map.

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But for as much as director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Biutiful) throws at us, not much of it sticks. Truth is, Birdman is never quite as clever or profound as it thinks it is. And worse yet, save for the ending, Birdman routinely underestimates the audience's ability to figure out what the filmmakers are hoping to convey by spelling everything out in tedious, overwrought voiceovers from Birdman and far too much informative dialogue.

Still, as unfairly hyped as the final product is, there are some noteworthy performances. Keaton, Norton and Watts are reliably up to the task, but it's Stone who's the real surprise here. Holding her own with far more seasoned contemporaries, Stone has a surprising range of real emotions that provides a pleasing counterbalance to all the magical realism on display. Without her, Birdman would've been even more of a mess than it already is.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking, sometimes to excess. Cigarette smoking. A character smokes a joint in one scene. References to Sam's recent stint in rehab.
  • Language/Profanity: A steady stream of profanity throughout, mostly f-bombs and misuses of God’s name. Several instances of rude humor, i.e. saying a woman’s face looks like “she just licked a homeless man’s as-.”
  • Sex/Nudity: A running gag about Mike’s selective erectile dysfunction (apparently, he’s only able to get an erection onstage—and his condition is used for comic effect in one scene). Mike wants to actually have sex onstage with his co-star/ex-girlfriend Lesley. We see her fight off his advances. Two women kiss passionately in one scene. Mike “fools around” with Sam, and we see them kiss (off-screen sex is implied). There are a handful of scenes where Riggan and Mike are shown in their tighty whities. Their bare backsides are also shown a couple of times.
  • Violence: An actor is injured when a heavy object falls on him (blood is briefly shown, and we see him in a wheelchair later on). References to suicide. Someone nearly blows their face off with a gun (blood is shown but the injuries wind up being less serious than one would expect).

Publication date: October 23, 2014

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