I saw Birdman after its critical acclaim was established but before its post-Oscar backlash started. It’s probably good that I did, since I am a notorious hater when it comes to good movies considered great. (Good Will Hunting is always my example here, which I really liked until every dummy I went to college with wouldn’t shut up about it. One I never troubled with was when a friend described The Girl Next Door as “a 21st century Dead Poets’ Society!” – I’m not sure which part of that statement is dumber.) As for Birdman, even before I started hating, it was a mixed bag.
First, unequivocally, I liked that it kept me interested. My immediate reaction when someone asked about it was “enjoyable, but totally bizarre.” That’s not a bad thing, and that’s why I stay away from movies like The Theory of Everything which look utterly predictable.
The performances are almost all equally enjoyable but bizarre, with Michael Keaton and Edward Norton standing out. Some of the film’s dialogue is a bit corny, but the two of them sell it well. Naomi Watts and Zach Galifanakis are solid, but Emma Stone as the daughter and Andrea Riseborough as the girlfriend are less successful. Their characters just seemed trite to me, with the daughter angry yet savvy with Keaton’s Twitter account, and the girlfriend giving Keaton a pregnancy scare just as his play is about to premiere. It’s too bad that they couldn’t get a little more of the enjoyable bizarreness that led to Keaton and Norton’s confessional scene, which got the biggest and most inappropriate laugh out of me in a while
As for Birdman‘s famous “one take” look, The AV Club‘s Scott Kaufman argues that the appearance of a oner makes the action seem more “realistic” and thus challenges the viewer by presenting unrealistic elements in a “documentary-like” fashion. I think long takes, especially some of the more famous ones such as Children of Men, are decidedly unrealistic. It’s too obvious (to me, at any rate) that the scene is a oner, and thus I assume the director is doing it mainly to show off. I know that’s not a fair characterization, but that’s how it always seems. I think movies like Amour, with long average shot lengths but with normal cuts, seem much realer than anything as showy as Birdman. But I actually think my biggest problem is that I learned about hiding cuts by watching a Pop Up Video episode about the Spice Girls’ song “Wannabe” – and Birdman does it the same way.
That said, I don’t mind with a director playing with the audience’s expectations of realism. One of my favorite tricks is background music. As viewers, we know that Rocky can’t hear “Hearts on Fire” as he’s training in Siberia. But what if, in between wood chopping sets or after outrunning his KGB handlers to climb the mountain, he took out his Walkman and hit pause and stopped the music? Birdman basically does this, as occasionally Michael Keaton walks by a drummer who is supplying what the audience assumes is background music. This, more than fake one shots, is the way to play with reality.
In the end, I liked Birdman, although not as much as my wife and certainly not as much as the Academy. I found the dialogue too cliche and the characters, while appealing, not strong enough to overcome it, and I definitely found the direction too clever by half.