Alejandro González Iñárritu and Michael Keaton soar with Birdman
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Review by Daniel Rester
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) shines as both an acting showcase and a bold brushstroke in inventive filmmaking. The film, written by Alejandro González Iñárritu and three others and directed by Iñárritu, is also a flawed, overlong, and somewhat jumbled piece of work with a story that takes turns that won’t please everyone. Even with those (miniscule) issues, Birdman emerges as a brilliant and eye-opening picture.
The film concerns Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who once dominated the screen as a superhero character named Birdman. Now, in an attempt to expand his creativity and steal back the spotlight, Riggan sets out to direct and star in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. During the days leading up to the first official showing, Riggan goes through hell as he wrangles in his production team and also deals with a little Birdman voice in his head that tells him to give up and return to movies.
Among the team is Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s best friend and producer, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Riggan’s girlfriend and an actress, and Lesley (Naomi Watts), an actress who has had big dreams of making it on Broadway. Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is also included as a production assistant; she is also a recovering drug addict. To make matters busier, Riggan must also deal with his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), showing up. The capper is when a stage light injures one of the actors, leading him to being replaced by a narcissistic method actor named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).
Birdman is such a weird film, but it’s also so damn entertaining at the same time. Iñárritu and his co-writers use the film as a dark satire to take punches at theatre, film (especially the superhero genre), critics, and even social media. But it’s all wrapped in a creative, poignant, and laugh-out-loud way, exploring both the humanity and ridiculousness of certain artistry.
Iñárritu usually makes films that are honest and brutally depressing, such as Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010). Birdman keeps the honest touch but finds Iñárritu mixing in more playfulness with the emotions. He pushes the actors here in order to mine pathos and humor out of each of them, succeeding admirably. And this is all while being the most visually daring we have ever seen him. Such leaps make it arguably the director’s best work to date.
Such “arguably best work to date” lines can also be thrown out for the majority of the actors. Keaton – a perfect choice for the role since he once played Batman himself – is incredible as he makes Riggan likable, pathetic, sad, and ambitious, often all at once. This may be a case of an actor playing an actor, but Keaton makes Riggan real and layered. Norton, doing his best work since his American History X (1998) and Fight Club (1999) days, is equally as good as Mike. This is a character that could have just been a one-note joke, but Norton presents him as a determined actor with many flaws, but also a man who brings thoughtfulness to many conversations; basically that kind of jerk that always manages to also make good points. Stone, raw and beautiful in her portrayal of Sam, pulls big punches as well. It would be shocking if all three of these people didn’t pick up Oscar nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards.
The supporting cast is fun to watch too. Galifianakis plays it straight here and does a great job at it. Watts (who is underused) and Riseborough are strong as well as they present the struggle of actresses on Broadway, though they do share one scene that feels more random than fitting. Finally Ryan is really good in a small but crucial role, with Sylvia bringing out a lot of the regrets that Riggan has when it comes to his role as a husband and father.
Iñárritu and his actors are supported by a technical team that brings back the movie magic thoughts of “How did they do that?” It’s such a refreshing feeling when that comes along. This starts at cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar for last year’s Gravity), a wizard behind the camera who makes Birdman seem as if it was filmed as one long tracking shot; editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione help by hiding the cuts. Whether moving through the thin backstage hallways or the wide streets of New York, the camera beautifully and smoothly captures the actors and locations. The production design, set decoration, and costume design are all first-rate as well, with all of the visual aspects accompanied by an energetic, percussion-heavy score by Antonio Sanchez.
Birdman is alive with imaginative filmmaking and excellent performances. Not all of its pieces quite work, but the efforts put into the less-successful bits are admirable just the same. Iñárritu’s film isn’t perfect and it won’t please all tastes, but it’s something that any major film lover should see.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A).
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence).
Runtime: 1 hour and 59 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: October 17th, 2014 (limited); October 24th, 2014 (wider).