‘Birdman’ Reviews: Michael Keaton Soars, But Does the Rest of the Film?

Despite some naysayers, “Babel” director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s first foray into dark, satirical comedy appears to be a successful one

Last Updated: October 17, 2014 @ 11:54 AM

“Birdman” has been receiving lots of Oscar buzz since it debuted on the festival circuit earlier this year, and critics mostly agree that the surreal drama starring Michael Keaton is one of Hollywood’s top offerings this year, even if it takes pleasure in making fun of the entire industry of show business.

“It’s been said that when the movies want to make fun of show business, they turn to the stage, and vice versa, but both Hollywood and Broadway take their lumps in ‘Birdman,’ a compelling tale that’s a backstage drama, a character piece, a stab at magical realism, and much more,” TheWrap‘s Alonso Duralde wrote in his review. “The director has wisely assembled an ensemble of performers who know how to handle a long take; this will certainly rank among Keaton’s career highlights — in a role that allows him to completely dump out his paintbox and show a vast range of emotion — but everyone shines.”

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Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” co-starring Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Zach Galifianakis, hits theaters on Friday with a 92 percent approval rating from critics aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes. Only four out of 52 reviews, so far, are “rotten.”

Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey thought the film soared high in all components of cinema — from the technical categories such as cinematography and editing to a sharp screenplay that “piles on a polyglot of social dynamics.” If viewers are looking to sit back, relax and enjoy the show, though,  Iñárritu’s vision and the actors he hired to bring it to life combine to make one “delicious” viewing experience.

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“The director’s surrealist portrait of modern times and the cult of celebrity is brilliant on so many levels that even the occasional downdraft can’t keep ‘Birdman’ from soaring,” Sharkey wrote. “But Keaton isn’t flying solo. He’s got an incredible troupe of supporting players, chief among them Edward Norton, burning almost as white-hot as Broadway bad boy Mike, and Emma Stone, adding her own maelstrom.”

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Keaton, who is perhaps still best known for playing the first big-screen incarnation of “Batman,” stars as an actor trying to shed his former superhero image by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. With his superhero alter ego, Birdman, constantly whispering doubt into his unstable mind, much of the dramatic tension seems to stem from whether his comeback will be a successful one.

If audiences are to consider “Birdman” to be Keaton’s real-life comeback after years of playing parts in low-grade genre fare (“White Noise,” “RoboCop,” “Need for Speed”), then USA Today critic Claudia Puig is one of many hailing his performance as an outstanding success.

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“One of the year’s most audacious, savagely funny and unpredictable films, it features an outstanding performance by Michael Keaton as the has-been star of a superhero franchise desperate to be taken seriously,” Puig wrote. “Keaton brilliantly inhabits the role of a washed-up star cracking under the pressure of a Broadway opening. He’s supremely self-involved, vengeful and not as smart as he’d like to think.”

Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson echoed the high remarks for the entire cast, especially Keaton, but found the premise to be a “familiar one,” which never really resulted in a truly moving experience.

“We’ve seen plenty of tortured stars who want to be artists, and artists who want to be stars, on film and stage before, and while ‘Birdman’ takes this old trope and sends it bouncing around at fascinatingly odd angles, I’m not sure it really says anything new by the end,” Lawson wrote. “The film is nervy, clever, a riot of crisp flourishes. But I missed the deeper notes, the richer and more complex swells. I was looking, maybe, for that ineffable spirit, the one that turns, through some fiery alchemy, art into feeling, and feeling into genuine, enduring art.”

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Slant critic R. Kurt Osenlund’s review was one of the decidedly negative. Though it offers a few compliments for some moments and performers, it concludes much of the film’s intended social commentary is  “redundant and unoriginal.”

“González Iñárritu has largely placed regurgitated ideas into the mouths of gifted actors, then dropped them amid a kooky story that plays like an elaborate distraction from what little ‘Birdman’ actually has to say,” Osenlund wrote. “There’s a real pity in that, because, as a film about the inner workings of theater life, ‘Birdman’ is genuinely fascinating. Though overly littered with gonzo antics, the pressures among the cast and crew in the lead-up to opening night are palpable, and the world itself is visually captured in ways at once inviting, enveloping, and claustrophobic.”