Acting is tough, so very, very tough. It is even worse if you don’t believe in what you are doing, y’know. Because no one wants to be popular, popularity is for the sell-outs. What everyone wants and what we all strive for is prestige, isn’t it. Or is it the ability to disappear in a role, to take on someone else’s problems and escape your own, but to find something within yourself while you are this other person, this character, that will help you become a fuller, better person in real life, whatever that is. But this constant search, this struggle, to find your true self is what acting is all about. Or is it just a relentless rat race to get the next big role, to stay on everyone’s minds at all times, to be seen as the best, to have everyone know your name and know that you are indeed a genius. So, anyway, acting is tough, whether you approach it as a constant search for self-fulfilment or self-definition or just for plain old Truth. Or filthy lucre. Either way its tough as hell.
There are few films about acting that don’t trouble their audiences with unbridled narcissism and dew-eyed sentimentality about the trials of this career choice and of the apparently low return and inevitable, heartbreaking decline in popularity. Chaplin’s Limelight is the kind of film that you want to strangle, and Birdman is not really all that much better. It is still a film that sentimentalises a job that most people wouldn’t consider particularly difficult – taxing, yes, but hardly coalmining – and it is amply rewarded, indeed often ridiculously so. It is also another film about acting in which the protagonist is played by an actor that would invite the audience to identify a certain truth behind the film. In this case, Birdman as played by Riggan as played by Michael Keaton is obviously (indeed too obvious for it to be deemed particularly clever) Batman. And the film is another one of those ones in which an actor loses popularity and so strives for prestige. Riggan is mounting a production of Raymond Carver in an effort to gain instant prestige, but the film isn’t really interested in addressing the cynical idea that certain performances can invite instant popularity and instant prestige and others nothing regardless of the quality of the actual performance. Why do Raymond Carver if it is all about prestige and why should Raymond Carver work as a passport to prestige if that is all it is used for? Is art really art if self-interest is at the heart of it? Does the true artist care about his public persona (I use the masculine because this stupid film insists that true artists are exclusively men – women here stand aside in awe or invent pregnancies) or does he create art because he thinks the public will dig it? The film doesn’t say.
Birdman doesn’t say anything about anything. It is the kind of film that pokes at interesting and profound ideas, but doesn’t have the patience to look at them properly. It points out that superhero films have taken over, but leaves it at that as if that particular insight is unique and groundbreaking enough. It suggests that this is what a modern, cinema-going audience wants, and says no more (and in fact ignores the ascent of television – too risky perhaps). It shows real sexism and even an attempted rape, and wonders if it has anything to do with the creation of real and true art, but prefers to move on (the film is CGI-ed to look like one long take, which is nicely done but noticeably fake and does not allow the film to ever slow down and think). It gestures at emotions, but it seems to be bored by them, and watching the film, it is difficult to care about anything or anyone that wanders in front of the camera as it completes its little technological innovation.
Birdman is a film without a point, a masquerade of intelligence and witty remarks without an ounce of intellectual or emotional weight. There is one nice scene in which Mike (Edward Norton) shows Riggan how to act a scene, which shows how two actors might have fun with a scene as written, getting into and around every line on the page and even making some of it up to find something real behind all the nice words and lines. It is the only scene in the film that is any fun, and the only one that suggests something positive and creative. And yet the camera will soon move on almost immediately to more self-pitying and more sexism. The film, by the way, does not refer to or acknowledge the fact that film is incredibly male-centric so the sexism isn’t intentional and it isn’t pointed.
The film is messy and it likes to roam around, so there didn’t seem to be any point in reviewing it soberly and mathematically, but the criticisms stand. The film is ultimately boring, because after so much whingeing and so much pretension, there isn’t anything in it worth staying for. It is the kind of film that adds little and takes away a lot, particularly when one considers that there are things here that it could have addressed, that could have made it worth making and worth watching, if only Iñárritu and his three other screenwriters had the balls. In that regard, it isn’t too far away from The Theory of Everything and that’s pretty damning for a film so self-consciously innovative.