Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough
The new Alejandro González Iñárritu film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is one of the most unique and best films of 2014. Anyone who appreciates film, theater, art, superheroes, or is looking for something different should find great pleasure in this movie. It demotes its value to simply classify this film as a “dark comedy” or “satire” as it is wrapped in many layers and anchored by exceptional performances by its well-rounded cast, most notably Michael Keaton.
For anyone familiar with Michael Keaton’s career, you know he played Batman twice in the late ’80s/early ’90s and has recently been in an array of underutilized roles. In this film, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former celebrity known for his superhero role in the “Birdman” films and has since become a has-been looking to reignite his fame. The Batman allegory is undoubtedly present. He’s making the switch to theater and directing and starring in a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. With a cast including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts, we see the anxiety surrounding the set as they get closer and closer to opening night.
Emma Stone gives her best performance yet as Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab but level-headed daughter, Sam. She is the voice of reason in the film and in the theater of looney characters all wrapped around the idea of becoming stars. Edward Norton gives a near-perfect performance as Mike Shiner, an accomplished actor who may be stealing Riggan’s thunder. He’s full of himself and provides a lot of comedy through his bizarre method acting. Naomi Watts plays Mike’s girlfriend Lesley who hopes to have a breakthrough as an actress. Her role is a bit underdeveloped but stands to represent the artist who’s never certain if their career will take off.
The film completely pokes fun at everything “art.” Theater is taken to be more prestigious than film which is why Riggan has made that switch. It mocks the current superhero trend and how actors are always associated with such roles. In a pivotal scene with a critic, Riggan is told that he’s a celebrity, not an actor. The more he tries to prove himself as a serious actor, the more stressed he becomes. We see things going wrong behind-the-scenes and Riggan can’t seem to make things go the way he wants them to. It’s as if this is Riggan’s last chance before he’s completely written off. As the film progresses, we see that Riggan can’t detach himself from the Birdman persona, both figuratively and literally as the media always view him as the Birdman star.
Throughout the film, Riggan hears the “voice” of Birdman in his head. This element completely called to mind The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. As hard as he tries to become a serious Broadway star, the voice is bringing him back to the superhero role which got him where he is. The film flirts with surrealism as there are moments throughout where Riggan gives into the voice in his head and you don’t know what’s really happening or what’s his imagination. Yet for all attempts to distance himself from this character, he appears the most serene when he listens to the voice. It’s these moments when Riggan cracks a smile and ignores all the trouble around him.
On a deeper level, we see this is a story about a man coming to terms with his past failures and shortcomings. Through his relationships with his ex-wife, girlfriend and daughter, we see how these people who’ve always stood by him have been brushed to the side in attempts to become something more. Riggan was never able to stop and listen to these women and discover how important they actually are in his life.
One of the strongest elements of the film is the cinematography. The entire film is presented as one long take as characters move in and out of the shot and the camera is always in motion. For the most part, the entire movie takes place in this theater and the behind-the-scenes of theater life. We are given the highs and lows of acting and how actors define their craft, through absurd and over-the-top examples.
The film never feels offensive as it maintains a playful tone throughout. The final shot may ultimately boil down to a headscratch for many, though it’s clearly open for interpretation. For all its weirdness, its surrealism and lighthearted mockeries, Birdman is a fun movie with a tone that shifts from humorous to tragic, from being melancholic to life-affirming. — James Leggett