In my line of work, I hear of dozens of new films each week. On the one hand, it’s great to have an insider, early look at a lot of the films coming out in the calendar year. On the other hand, it takes away from the intrigue and spectacle that films used to have before I decided to follow this career path. It’s rare, but every once in awhile, a film will seemingly come out of nowhere and retrieve those lost feelings of awe and wonder. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was that film for me.
In saying that, I subconsciously set a high bar walking into my screening of the film. Considering the cast and crew (Babel and Amores Perros writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, et al), how could I not? After a year full of festivals and amazing film premieres, would Birdman be able to rise above all of them and surpass my exceedingly high expectations? Spoiler alert: Yes and no.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Release Date: October 24, 2014
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) found success in the ’90s portraying the superhero Birdman in a blockbuster franchise that is still remembered fondly to this day. Feeling artistically empty and desperate to affirm his talent as not only an actor but as an artist, Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Chandler’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” After the lead actor is viciously injured by a fallen stage light, Riggan implores his producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), to get Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the most talented current Broadway actor. However, after Mike joins the cast, tensions rise between he and Riggan as control over the play ultimately falls out of Riggan’s hands.
Through this, Riggan must also contend with the contentious relationship with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering addict fresh out of rehab, his relationship with girlfriend and co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), the strong friendship with his ex-wife and Sam’s mother, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and a New York Times critic and close friend of Mike’s who promises to bury the play in her review due to her perceptions of Riggan as a Hollywood hack simply extending his 15 minutes of fame. Of course, there’s also Riggan’s growing pangs of a midlife crisis breakdown and the eponymous Birdman manifesting itself within Riggan’s psyche.
There are so many elements playing both in concert and conflicting one another in Birdman that it’ll take multiple viewings to dissect and analyze the full depth of the film. For the sake of this review, I’ll focus on the biggest and most apparent elements: the difference between theater and cinema and Birdman‘s attempt to create a dichotomy of the two and the dissection of art/entertainment. Birdman is screened to seem like it was all one long take with no edits (there are edits made through deception, i.e. dark shadows in corridors, etc.). This visual element gives the audience the notion that you are watching one long sprawling play about a cast of characters putting together a Broadway play. The characters themselves (both actors and supporting characters) always give off this notion of acting, creating the illusion that the characters are always “on stage,” with lines delivered much like soliloquies found more within theater than in films.
The combination of the two may disarm viewers expecting a traditional film, and the effect may not carry the same esteem for everybody. Others may not like how much of the dialogue is delivered as if every actor had a spotlight shining on them as they stood upon a soap box and recounted personal, emotional stories about their characters. But for myself, somebody who has dedicated a growing number of years to analyzing and critiquing films, I absolutely loved Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s approach to Birdman. I’m a sucker for film visionaries that aren’t scared to experiment with their craft. What’s more, I think they truly pulled off creating the idea of Birdman, the film, being representative of a film of a play presented as a play through film.
What’s more, it’s hard to ignore the metafictional crux of the film of Michael Keaton playing the lead role, given his memorable performances as Batman during the early ’90s. Without his past, would a film like Birdman even exist to this level? Probably not. Keaton truly is the heart and soul of the film, and not only does he knock it out of the park, each and every supporting actor from Norton to Stone to Ryan to Galifianakis help ensure Birdman reaches the levels Inarritu intended when putting the film together. Hell, even the jazz-influenced drum score by Antonio Sanchez helped ratchet up the faux-appearance of tightly-written improvisation.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was everything I wanted it to be and more. Even as I write this, I’m making plans to view it for a second time. As the awards season begins and many highly-regarded films will be released into theaters for Academy Award consideration, Birdman currently flies above the potential of any film scheduled for release through the end of the year. However, its experimental nature might not be for everyone, and while it may collect a multitude of critic awards and Top Ten list considerations, I’ll be disappointed (but unsurprised) if it doesn’t capture the amount of Oscar nominations it should. For the average weekend moviegoer, if you want to see some of the year’s best cinematic performances and watch the vision of one of Hollywood’s true visionaries, take it upon yourselves to find a theater that is screening Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).