Birdman: a masterclass in pointless pretension

Christian Butler

Topics Culture

How ironic that a film satirising pretentious people should be so pretentious itself. In Birdman, the new black comedy from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor most famous for playing the lead in a comic-book movie franchise from 20 years ago (ring any bells?). Riggan mounts a Broadway play which he writes, directs and stars in, in a bid to be taken seriously as an actor. The plot follows Riggan’s conflict with his actors, his personal relationships and his own subconscious.

Before the movie’s pretentiousness fully dawns on the viewer, they’re alerted to it by González Iñárritu’s decision to film Birdman in what appears as one long, continuous shot. That’s all very technically impressive and everything, but why? What in the material demanded such an approach? It’s not the first film to attempt this. The most famous ‘one shot’ film is Hitchcock’s Rope – which unfurls in one setting and in real time. Birdman takes place over a few days, in and around the theatre. This means a lot of bizarre transitions which zip across time and space, disrupting the film’s the flow.

The screenplay is a disaster, despite it taking four people to cobble together. The film’s central subject is the meaninglessness of it all; Riggan’s quest to do ‘something that matters’ leading him, inevitably, to attempt suicide. When the script isn’t languishing in the abyss it takes cheap shots at showbiz – sniping at blockbuster actors, actors who take themselves too seriously, actors who do Broadway just for the credibility, etc. It’s all topped off with some dire magical realism and scatological gags the writers of Mrs Brown’s Boys would think twice about.

The script tosses and turns between skewering the ego of the actors and first-year philosophical musings on the futility of life itself. This confused approach culminates in a strange sequence in which Riggan walks through Times Square in his underwear – which is neither funny nor ‘deep’.

Towards the end, Riggan’s ‘Birdman’ alter ego chides him for his pompous return to the theatre. The masses starve for ‘blood and action’, not ‘artsy-fartsy, philosophical bullshit’, he says. It’s fair to say there will be few starving for Birdman‘s pretentious fare.

Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.

Watch the trailer for Birdman:

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