Review: “Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)”

There’s likely to be just as many people who simply don’t get Birdman as those that acclaim it as one of the year’s most impactful and memorable films, and that’s okay. It’s not something that everyone should agree on, as it’s anything but a film designed to appeal to the masses. It’s shot in such a way that it invades the personal space of the performers, and thus watching it should make viewers at least a little uncomfortable. It’s also raw with emotion and immediacy and rich with commentary on everything from the fickle, demanding nature of celebrity to the snobbery and self-importance of the actors and critics that inhabit the Broadway theater scene to people’s very basic need for validation and a feeling of relevance among friends, family, peers, and the world at large.

In all seriousness, it should be seen by any and everyone who’s ever said they love movies, because whether you love it or hate it, it will get under your skin, burn itself into your memory, and demand an emotional, visceral response

That’s what true art in any medium does if you approach it with an open mind.

The film’s plot follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a has-been Hollywood movie actor whose career has been on life support for a long, long time. He’s still best remembered by the public for portraying the iconic superhero “Birdman” in three big budget action films in the ’90s, but that D-List type of celebrity has become more of a haunting hindrance to Riggan than anything else, and he yearns for more legitimate recognition.

His latest effort to reinvigorate his fortunes and regain his self-respect smacks of the kind of desperation that drives other one-time celebrities to do reality shows about their family lives: a Broadway stage adaptation of a 33-year-old short story by Raymond Carver that he’s written and that he’s directing, starring in, and bankrolling with just about every penny he has left in the world. A week from opening night, Riggan finds himself forced to replace a lead cast member with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a brilliant but misanthropic performer whose reputation alone will sell out shows and vastly improve the show’s chances of getting favorable reviews. But there’s a price to be paid for Mike’s inclusion in the show: his previous rocky relationship history with Lesley (Naomi Watts), the show’s female lead, makes rehearsals difficult, to put it mildly. His attitude and abrasiveness catches the eye of Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s estranged daughter recently out of rehab and hired by her dad as his personal assistant. And worst of all, his superior talent and maverick approach to performance immediately put Riggan and his fragile self-confidence on the defensive.

Add to all that Riggan’s other co-star and lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough) growing impatient about his lack of emotional investment in their relationship, his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) popping in now and then to check on him and how he’s getting along with Sam, and his friend and the show’s producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) hounding him about the fact that the show’s broke and they need all the good publicity they can get just to survive this venture, and Riggan finds himself on the brink.

But even all those voices pulling him in different directions are mere whispers in comparison to the one voice Riggan can’t ever escape, the one in his head that berates him at every turn for the folly that is the show and how far he’s let himself fall: the voice of … well, who else? Birdman himself.

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Birdman is primarily the brainchild of Mexican film director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel), who along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) undertakes to shoot this complex, character-driven black comedy all in what appears to be a series of extended, fluid, unbroken shots that follow the performers through the cramped, dimly-lit and at times dingy spaces backstage at the historic St. James Theater on Broadway that serves as the backdrop for most of the film’s action. Because of the single perspective offered by the one camera in each scene, what audiences get on-screen looks and feels much more like a theater production, with the actors moving in concert with the camera motion in order to further heighten the effect. The result is the ultimate behind-the-scenes, fly-on-the-wall experience, with the tense and intimate exchanges between characters or even within themselves laid bare with intentionally harsh light and awkward angles. It effectively creates the feeling that what we’re seeing we weren’t ever meant to see, and thus if you take any pleasure in things voyeuristic (and really, who doesn’t in this day and age?), then you’re in for a real treat here.

But the film techniques used by Iñárritu to craft Birdman are really just the beginning of the fun to be had here. If you enjoy watching actors push themselves, take on roles that require them to go way out of their comfort zones in order to present something truly memorable, then this film is an absolute must-see. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor better suited to take on the role of Riggan Thomson than Michael Keaton, due to his immutable place in pop culture as Bruce Wayne/Batman in the Tim Burton Batman films of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Arguably, Keaton’s own career has followed a similar arc to Riggan’s, and so watching him in character grapple with his love/hate relationship with his own celebrity, his ego, and the long shadow of the larger-than-life character that he inhabited and thus is inextricably tied to for all time carries with it a subversive, ironic pleasure.

But there’s more to Riggan than just his angst at not being anything more memorable or relevant to people than just “the guy who was Birdman in the movies.” In the course of the film Riggan comes face to face really for the first time with his failures as a parent, his mediocrity as a performer, and his up-until-this-point obliviousness to the distinction between real love and connection and what you get from fans and admirers. As pathetic and sad as Riggan comes of as at times in the film, he’s always terribly human, and for that reason you can’t help but want to see him fix the things he’s screwed up and be better for it by the end. It’s Keaton that brings all that to life in a believable and relatable way at the center of all the absurdity and chaos around him, and for that his performance here should be considered among the year’s finest for an actor in a lead role.

Rather than enumerate just how and why everyone else in the production is just as good as Keaton is here (and in doing so at the very least double the word count of this review), suffice to say that the rest of the ensemble all step up their game to match what Keaton brings to the table here. Each of their characters too, as products or by-products of a life lived in the entertainment world, all fight that egocentric battle between self-importance and self-loathing in their own ways. The script by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo gives them all so much to work with in terms of their situations and their relationships to the world around them, and they each just run with it. Watching them go to work with such heady, savvy material is an absolute joy, assuming you have a taste for the unconventional and the unexpected.

And if you don’t have a taste for such things? Well, there’s no better opportunity out there right now than Birdman to work on developing one. See it, and prepare to be impressed.

Score: 5 out of 5

Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Running Time: 119 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.