Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dark comedy about a Hollywood film star is overwrought and self-indulgentby Sameer Rahim / February 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
After every Oscars ceremony, fans of the less successful films tend to feel aggrieved. This year’s injured parties are the emotional time-lapse drama Boyhood (directed by Richard Linklater), for which Patricia Arquette won best actress but nothing else; and the excellent Selma (directed by Ava DuVernay), for which David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King should have won best actor but didn’t. (It won best original song for Glory). The Oscars, though, aren’t a marker of absolute quality: whatever film triumphs usually has something going for it, and winning the best picture award should be treated about as reliably as a recommendation from a friend who has seen lots of films.
Unfortunately this year’s most successful film, with four Oscars, including best picture, best director and best screenplay, is in my opinion not worth your time. Birdman is a turkey. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is fresh in my mind since I saw it last night on a hunch that it would do well. The plot has promise: Michael Keaton is a fading Hollywood star haunted by his one success playing a superhero called Birdman in the 1990s. To gain artistic credibility and relaunch his career, he is directing a theatrical version of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, which he also stars in. Keaton’s character has to deal with an ex-wife he still loves, a daughter he neglected who is just out of rehab and the nagging sense that he is a mere celebrity rather than a serious artiste.
The problem is that Iñárritu’s direction is as self-indulgent as his main character’s. Birdman gives the impression of being filmed in one take: the camera swoops down the corridors of a Broadway theatre, into the dressing rooms and on to the stage where the play is being performed. It’s skilfully done but the visual relentlessness gives the viewer little space to reflect on the action, and soon gets exhausting. The swelling music—Tchaikosvky, Mahler, John Adams—manipulates our emotions while also tipping the wink that it’s doing so—a type of ironised sentimentality that amounts to having your cake and eating it.
The characters speak in clever-clever patter that made my eyes roll. Edward Norton, playing an obnoxious actor who is meant to be hilarious but is just obnoxious, is as overwrought as the words he speaks. Naomi Watts’s character, an actress, never amounts to more than a collection of stereotyped insecurities. A strange moment when she seems on the verge of starting an affair with her co-star played by Andrea Riseborough is thrown in, but never followed up.
I suspect we’re supposed to get this as a teasing reference to Watt’s performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), in which she takes another Hollywood actress as a lover. Birdman is stuffed with film references: the opening credits are a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou; Keaton as Birdman evokes his time when he actually played Batman in the early 1990s; Norton’s explosive temperament nods to his 2008 role as the Incredible Hulk. Iñárritu clearly has a deep knowledge of cinema but there’s something self-satisfied about all the in-jokes—especially when certain scenes don’t really work unless you get the reference.
But perhaps all my problems with the film—and those of others like Richard Brody in the New Yorker—are more to do with me than with Birdman. Certainly Iñárritu would probably think so. He portrays a critic from the New York Times as resentful, uptight and out to destroy Keaton’s character. The implication is that critics are anti-creative, destructive types who contribute nothing to the world. The people we should really admire, the film says, are the brave people from Hollywood, heroic but flawed, exposing their souls for our sakes, no matter what it might cost them. It’s no wonder the Academy loved it.