Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Roseborough, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Screenplay: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Review published November 2, 2014
"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing"
This anonymous quote comes from something written on a notecard taped to the dressing room mirror of Birdman's protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Keaton, Need for Speed), and could be read as something that would completely negate this review, as what I claim Birdman is shouldn't be the definition of what it is -- it's just a series of labels I put on it myself. Of course, considering that I am going to deem their movie one of the most brilliant films of the year, I doubt the makers behind it will argue that this review should be ignored. And, hey, just because someone claims reviews are worthless, doesn't make them so. A thing is a thing, remember?
As an actor and an artist, Riggan has seen better days. He's most popular as the guy who used to play 'Birdman' in the first three films of a Hollywood superhero franchise. Not wanting to be defined by Birdman, Riggan is going to show the world what a true talent he is, putting on a Broadway show adapting a short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," by Raymond Carver. Opening night is fast approaching, and things are not holding together very well. The previews are met with technical issues galore, his recently rehabbed daughter (Stone, Magic in the Moonlight) and jilted ex-wife (Ryan, Escape Plan) are floating around making him feel even more like a schmuck, his other lead male actor (Norton, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is stealing his headlines, and one of his female actresses (Riseborough, Oblivion) has just told him she's carrying his baby. The New York Times theater critic (Duncan, Le Week-End) will be in attendance on opening night, and she's sharpening her analytical knives in anticipation of a slaughter. To top it all off, Riggan just might be going a bit crazy.
Though the marketing might suggest otherwise, this is not a film about superheroes, though there is definitely commentary underneath regarding populist fare vs. art that incorporates the superhero element into the mix. Plus, there's the fact that Michael Keaton was the original big screen Batman in a couple of wildly popular films, which does add another layer to an already multi-tiered storyline.
One of the more notable items when it comes to Birdman is the way that director and co-writer Inarritu (Babel, Amores Perros) has decided to shoot the film. Most of the running length is done as if one long take, with entire scenes playing out without any cuts, and characters who move from one scene to another without any stoppage in the onscreen flow. It's an adept technical performance, and while some might see it as a gimmick, it's important to remember that nearly the entire film is set at a theater house, where plays are regularly performed live and without the ability to stop and keep doing the same take until it is done right, so it ties in with the nature of live performance, even if it is something that may have taken many, many attempts to perfect.
Gimmick or not, it really makes us feel like we're inside this theater along with the characters. It's actually astonishing that we not only have great actors nailing tricky scenes, and really some stunning, winding camerawork to go with it, but such things as the weaving in of special effects and the utter lack of capturing any of the off-screen crew members who surely must have been around helping with the shoot (that we never see anything we shouldn't in any of the many on-screen mirrors is quite astonishing) only makes this one of the more brilliant efforts at shooting a seamless film since the first in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. The jazzy percussive score is also a perfect complement to the seemingly loose riffing going on in the acting ensemble.
Birdman is more a philosophical dramedy with fantasy metaphysical elements (Riggan fancies that he has telekinetic powers) than anything else, but it's still a film that is uneasy to label. It's like a heightened version of a Robert Altman project, with its many-layered approach to themes and conversations, roving camerawork, seemingly loose approach to pacing, and its incisive slicing up of populist entertainment in favor of the old fashioned. Perhaps this is something Inarritu is very aware of, given that Robert Altman is perhaps cinema's most well-known Raymond Carver fan; he adapted a few of his short stories into the sprawling dramatic opus, Short Cuts.
This may be Keaton's most brilliant performance in years, perhaps ever, channeling into Riggan's own ups and downs as an actor to draw upon his own quest for a comeback to relevancy in the hearts and minds of a public that only sees him as 'that guy that did that thing', and nothing more. Keaton will get most of the accolades from an acting standpoint, but there are uniformly solid turns by an impressive cast, especially Ed Norton as the cocky actor whose stage life has superseded his real one. Emma Stone, Naomi Watts (St. Vincent), and even Zach Galifianakis (Are You Here) get to put in good work in their small amount of screen time. If ever there could be an Academy Award for best overall ensemble performance in a film, Birdman might have claimed 2014's.
If you enjoy art house films and those off of the beaten path, I probably don't have to tell you to run (or fly, if you have wings) to go see Birdman, as it is one of the best films of the year. Those who are into more conventional fare, the ones who are expecting Keaton to recreate Batman in a film that alludes to it, will have to strive to keep an open mind toward a film that approaches its subject matter in a wholly unconventional approach. Unlike the tale of Icarus, which seems to have some inspiration to the Birdman motif, when this one takes flight, it only soars higher when it defies conventional rules. This is what I say of the 'thing' that is Birdman: A breathtakingly brilliant, multi-layered work that may have you beg for an encore performance immediately after fade to black.
©2014 Vince Leo