Last night we saw Birdman, the new Michael Keaton film. Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a film actor grown famous by playing the "Birdman." The Birdman flies above all of us and moves things with his mind. He's just another in our long litany of superheroes, and Thompson is tired of playing a stock character. So he decides to burnish his artistic credentials staging a play--an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story--on Broadway.
Birdman offers familiar themes of what's popular compared to what's good, and some familiar show biz types like the high strung producer (Zach Galifianakis) and the preening actor (Edward Norton). The reviews have been almost universally positive, which is why Rex Reed stands out for his dyspeptic dissent. Many reviewers note the amazing cinematography of the film, which appears to be one long, glorious take.
I agree with the positive critiques, because I really enjoyed "Birdman." But there is one false note. Lindsay Duncan plays Tabitha Dickinson, the chief theater critic for the New York Times. In the theater district bar where she drafts her reviews (in longhand), Dickinson tells Thompson that she will "destroy his play." She says this before she even sees it; her beef with Thompson is that he is a Hollywood hack now pretending to be a real artist. Near the end of the film, the two--beleaguered actor, villainous critic--engage in a spiteful war of words.
Clearly we are supposed to side with Thompson. Even if it's not a supreme work of art at least he's putting his soul into this play. All Dickinson does is opine from her corner seat at the bar.
That's too easy, almost like cops and robbers. This is why many critics--but not all--have raised their hackles about the exchange between Thompson and Dickinson.
Of course, vituperative and mean-spirited criticism is without value. But anyone who has become the chief critic at the Times would have more perspective. Criticism is about discernment and judgment. Case in point--Rex Reed's harshness about Birdman has a basis, even if I don't agree with it.
When I was growing up Frank Gabrenya was the film critic for the Columbus Dispatch. He was tough, and people found him annoying. But he had his reasons, and he liked what he liked. Critics like Tabitha Dickinson should not exist, and they almost never do.