Film Review – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Fame, desperation, the need for strangers to admire you, the search for artistic truth, commerce versus art, the ability for an actor to completely commit to their craft and yet wreak havoc with their personal life, aging, magical realism, being stuck in one’s own head, these are all grappled with in the audacious new film Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). While ambitious, it turns out to be one of the most smartly entertaining and visually stunning movies in recent memory. Birdman will be gracing a lot of critical top 10 lists for the year and will be courted by a lot of Academy Award talk. It will all be deserved.
Michael Keaton, likely giving his greatest performance ever, stars as Riggan Thomson. He is an aging film actor who walked away from the titular role of a lucrative superhero role back in 1992 (sound familiar?). He is desperately trying to mount a new Broadway play of a famous Raymond Carver story in which he writes, directs, and stars. His money, ego, and entire self worth is riding on this production. Meanwhile, the voice of Birdman, his former role, is constantly whispering in his ear by reinforcing all of his self doubt.
Meanwhile, he is dealing with a harried and nervous Producer (Zach Galifinakis), an earnest but slightly frail female lead (Naomi Watts), his personal assistant who also happens to be his drug addict recovering daughter (Emma Stone), a long since done with him ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a volatile current girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), paparazzi, the public’s perception, the possibility of a scathing review from the New York elite, and the artistically true but dangerously unreliable male co-star (a terrific Edward Norton).
Alejandro González Iñárritu has created a masterful work here. He co-wrote the terrific script with three other writers as well as directed. Almost all of the film is shot as if it is one long take. There are virtually no cuts throughout. In what must becoming Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki‘s signature camera move, much like he frequently did in Gravity, the camera will linger on an actor’s face, then pan out moving around the room making you very aware of what is and isn’t being shown. Virtually all of the film takes place inside one theater, but it is one of the least “stagey” films about live theater you are likely to see.
Meanwhile, what this script has to say about the truth in acting versus the critical and public perception of it is quite lacerating. Yes, movie blockbusters are sometimes cynically created by focus groups and marketing people, but the creators who drive these projects are real human beings. Riggan is both attracted and repelled by the attention. He used to be one of the kings of Hollywood and he would like to get that back. But he also wants to be recognized for being part of something real. He may be out of his depth tackling something as tricky as “real” theater. But also wants to prove to everyone that he matters.
All of the acting here is terrific. Naomi Watts doesn’t play the stereotypical leading lady diva. She is genuinely trying to help the show in any way she can but is incredibly scared of failing. Emma Stone does some of her best work ever, particularly in a fight she has with Riggan regarding what matters and what doesn’t. She yells at him that he’s holding everything else secondary to whether a theater of 800 white people like a make believe story for a couple of hours and whose thoughts 10 minutes after the curtain call will be where they want to eat dinner. Brutally true.
Edward Norton is particularly wonderful as Mike Shiner, the one true New York theater actor involved in the show. He alternates between truly insightful deep dive acting prowess and self important alcoholic douche-baggery. Casting Norton as Mike is a stroke of genius. Much like Dustin Hoffman did in Tootsie with lines about method acting the role of a tomato, they are clearly playing with the perceived persona of Norton as the “difficult” actor. He famously left the Hulk role because of artistic differences with the Marvel film machine. He has been known to lose himself deep inside roles before and thought to be standoffish because of it. Here, his character is a kind of parody of that persona. Putting on airs of James Dean, he is also right when it comes to a lot of what acting is about. He is in a constant search for truth. But he uses it as an excuse to act like a complete ass to all of those around him.
But when it comes down to it, Birdman is really the Michael Keaton show. Even though he’s never really been out of work, he hasn’t been front and center in a major film in a long time. And this movie reminds us all how much we like him and asking why we ever let our attention wander from him. Though Keaton says that Riggan is nothing like him personally, there is clearly some filmic coding here in casting Keaton as the former Birdman. Much like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, when an iconic actor known for a certain genre role is presented as an aging version of that same thing, the audience is meant to make that connection while the film is subverting those very preconceived notions. And there are moments that Keaton himself must have lived through. A press junket has him being grilled about artistic expression by one interviewer while another is asking him ridiculous questions about his anti-aging regimen. At another point while spotted in a local bar, a middle aged couple asks to take his picture with their son. The son asks who this guy is and their unintentionally dismissive response is that he used to be Birdman. Keaton is vulnerable, manic, passionate, sad, and yet at least attempts to care about others. He is often just so lost in his desire to get strangers to respect him that he ignores those he should care about more. We even get a hilarious superhero fight of sorts with Norton and Keaton get into a physical fight at one point which results in a pathetically realistic bit of rolling around on the floor. Keaton plays this part without ego, and that rawness is exciting to watch.
A special note should also be made of the percussive score by Antonio Sanchez. The frequent drumming used is like another character throughout the film and it helps to create a sense of urgency to all of the frantic backstage antics.
Birdman might make a fine double feature with All About Eve. It seems like a fair comparison with that renowned Best Picture winner. While most think of that film for the plot of Eve Harrington trying to manipulate Margo so that she can become a star, it’s the theme about Bette Davis playing an aging actor who is desperately trying to stay relevant that is mirrored in Birdman. Inarritu has created a funny and poignant film about acting. Keaton is worth the price of admission alone, but the cinematography, score, and supporting work really round out one of the best of the year.