Art & Culture

Just as children look forward to Christmas, so I am prone to eagerly anticipate certain films that sound as they are going to be just my kind of thing. Which makes it all the harder when I discover that the aforementioned treat turns out to be just a whole bunch of nothing. Which is, I'm afraid, what Birdman is.

I can see how you could write a rave review of the film, on the basis of its daring editing (or apparent lack of), the acting, the bravura camerawork, the starry cast, and so on and so on. But that would be to overlook my experience of watching the film. It seemed shouty, disjointed and ultimately pointless. I didn't like any of the characters, I didn't care what happened to them, and well before the end I was wondering what made so many film critics lose all self control in their desire to pluck superlatives out of their thesaurus.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an ex-Hollywood star who used to star as Birdman but whose career is currently in the tank. He's financing a stage production of a Raymond Carver short story, which he is directing and stars in, and which amounts to his last chance. Around him, there is a daughter (Emma Stone), an ex-wife (Amy Ryan ), a lover (Andrea Riseborough), a business partner (Zach Galifianakis), a fellow actor (Naomi Watts) and her deranged boyfriend (Edward Norton). All these people skate in and out of his life, as the camera follows Riggan from stage to dressing room to street and back again, all apparently with a break (the editing is invisible).

Riggan is not one of those people whose friendship you would want to cultivate. He's self obsessed, angry, frustrated, vain and – most problematically – seems to have a split personality. Throughout the film we hear the voice of his Birdman persona, and at one point, the creature appears on screen as well. This manifestation urges Riggan to go back to what he once was, to reclaim his potency, and slay the petty pygmies who want to bring down a great man. The pygmies in question are trying to make sense of what seems like a half baked play, with an audience who show no great interest (except for the potential car crash), and a film critic who is determined to slash and burn.

I followed all these twists and turns with some interest, but with a growing uncertainty as to what the point of it all was. I guess we're supposed to be watching the disintegration of a fragile personality (is the whole thing a figment of his imagination?), and there may be some comment on modern celebrity culture, but beyond that? Not much, that I can see. I wouldn't pin the blame on Keaton, who does an excellent job, but the fact is, he remains an essentially unsympathetic actor, who it is hard to warm to. And although he is not meant to be likeable, we do need to care about his predicament if we're going to spend 2 hours examining it from every angle.

I guess what it comes down to is not why the film is bad – because it's not bad – but why so many people are claiming greatness for it, because it's not great. Really, it's not.


Phil Raby 

Front Row Films 

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