MovieBob - Intermission
Birdman Is Pretentious, But That Doesn't Mean It's Not Fun

Bob Chipman | 24 Oct 2014 12:00
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Intermission: Birdman: social

The latest by critics' darling Alejandro Iñárritu is a fun ride if you can get over the fact that the film can't get over itself.

Birdman posits a particularly interesting dilemma for any critic: Is it fair to call a film "pretentious" when it fancies itself as a satire of pretentiousness in the first place? It starts out mocking fallen movie stars who turn to live-theater for career-rebooting legitimacy, then turns to mocking Broadway culture for its own self-righteous dismissal of the movie scene, then wants to take seemingly the entire world to task for its embrace of mindless action pablum -- all in the form of characters spouting monologues and soliloquies that will sound extremely fresh, meaningful and profound to smarmy teenaged philosophy buffs the world over. It's a movie about people who all have their heads wedged squarely up their own asses, and either doesn't realize it's right there with them or assumes that the acknowledgment inoculates it.

Which isn't to say it's not well made. Or well acted. Or that it's not fun to watch and chew over for an hour or two after it's concluded. Just that I'm dreading having to hear every would-be intellectual with a framed photo of their High School drama club explaining what a profound statement it is on whichever of its thuddingly on-the-nose longform observations most spoke to their existing biases about art, culture, etc.

In other words? Welcome back, Alejandro González Iñárritu -- the enduring critics' darling auteur whose career to this point exists to answer a single all-important question: How talented, arresting and clever does art have to be in order to negate how insufferably pretentious it is?

The film is nominally "about" a struggling former movie star named Riggan Thomson, once famous for a trilogy of films about a superhero called Birdman, angling for credibility and a comeback by writing, directing and starring in a serious Broadway production. He is played by Michael Keaton, who of course once played Batman, and that's the entirety of that joke. Keaton is fine, because he's always been a good actor, but one gets the sense that the film (or, rather its director) is a little too pleased with the supposed meaningfulness of the juxtaposition. Apart from having been Batman, Keaton's persona (real-world or celebrity) doesn't resemble Thomson's situation much, so the character's myriad other quirks (he hallucinates being able to move objects with his mind whenever he feels like things are out of his control) are more interesting than the constant "Get it!? Because he was Batman!!"

On the other hand, the guy who does show up playing rather decidedly himself is Edward Norton, having a little too much fun as a preening, self-obsessed, critically-beloved actor who sweeps in to fill a sudden cast vacancy and immediately starts asserting control over the script, direction and other castmembers while waxing obnoxiously about the "authenticity" of the theatre. He's a hoot to watch, especially if you're coming in with any familiarity to his storied reputation as a "difficult" actor to work with... until it becomes clear that his principal function is to assure us that Iñárritu thinks Broadway's self-serious contempt for a mere movie star like Thomson is just as irritating as the unctuous junket press who just want to ask traffic-baity questions about Birdman (speaking of which, it's weird that global-thinking indie hero Iñárritu goes immediately to Hollywood's favorite new stereotype, the Asian Guy With Obnoxiously Mainstream Taste).

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