As I wrote on January 15:
I saw “Birdman” a couple of months ago, but have never thought of anything very interesting to write about it. In brief, Michael Keaton, who played Batman for Tim Burton a quarter of a century ago, plays a washed-up movie star of three “Birdman” superhero blockbusters who is trying to regain credibility by mounting a worthy Broadway drama based on that Raymond Carver short story that everybody studies in creative writing class. We peek in on backstage drama and comedy as Keaton tries to keep his sanity together on the rocky road to opening night.
It’s pretty good but repeatedly fails to be brilliant. It’s worthy of one of the eight Best Picture nods, but it’s kind of disappointing. One problem is that the bravura bar is awfully high for backstage plays and movies, such as “All About Eve,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” “All That Jazz,” “Show Boat,” “Cabaret,” “The Producers,” “Noises Off,” “Moulin Rouge,” “The Real Thing,” and “The Real Inspector Hound.” A movie about putting on a show isn’t like a movie about baseball statistics where you get a degree of difficulty bonus. Putting on a show is what people who make movies do, so you need to stand out in some fashion, such as in witty dialogue or song and dance numbers.
The main gimmick in “Birdman” is that super cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity,” “Tree of Life,” “Children of Men”) shoots each scene in one long handheld take. (There are claims that the entire movie is in one long take, but the screenplay drags out over a week or so, so what’s the point of that?) Enormous amounts of effort must have been devoted to planning each long take, but at what opportunity cost? What if some of that effort had instead been devoted to the story, characters, dialogue, acting, and look of the movie? D.W. Griffith invented the modern system of cuts a century ago and, you know, it probably doesn’t really need to be dis-invented.
And to the extent that the long takes succeed, which they largely do (this is not at all a bad movie), you end up thinking this material might work better as a play.
I’d add that while there’s nothing particularly wrong with the screenplay by the four guys, but having three out of four be English as a Second Language types puts the movie at a disadvantage in the backstage genre, which famously features verbal talents in English like Cole Porter, Michael Frayn, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Tom Stoppard, and the like.
Look at the official title of the movie: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” We’re not dealing with masters of vernacular English here.
In contrast, here’s a scene from another backstage story, Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, which is about a production of Taming of the Shrew. Two gangsters who have been hanging around backstage to collect a debt from the director inadvertently find themselves onstage in front of the audience … and start to enjoy the spotlight:
What’s the first backstage play in English? Hamlet, perhaps?
This is the easiest genre to make scintillating because it’s automatically about comparing and contrasting two levels of artifice. “Birdman” does not rise to the occasion. Indeed, some of the big superhero blockbusters, such as “The Avengers,” that “Birdman” is sort of, mildly, vaguely making fun of are more intellectually challenging.
Still, it’s a better than okay movie; just don’t get your hopes too high.