Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Hands down Alejandro G. Innaritu’s most audacious, most formally daring, and most magnificent film to date, “Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” announces a triumphant return for iconic lead actor Michael Keaton, who already places himself as a strong contender for the year’s race for Best Actor. The sharply written script, which is very satirical in its exploration of stardom, pop culture, and narcissism, is co-written by Innaritu, Nicholas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo.
In many ways the film is a deconstructionist and witty satire on show-biz and broadway, where both worlds collide due to actors frustrations with Hollywood. Innaritu in his 5th feature, who directed the 2006 masterpiece “Babel”, as well as such other wrenching works as “21 Grams”, and “Amores Perros, here switches up his aesthetic and visual style. Staging each scene in singular, unbroken long takes that gives the film a theatrical and lively feeling. The result is magnificent and astonishing, and the bold visual style should lock in a Best Director nomination for Innaritu.
“Birdman” in a sense plays out like an updated version of Billy Wilder’s, 1950 noir masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard”, which is one of my personal favorite films of all time. While “Birdman” isn’t a noir, there are many similarities between both films within its dark humor and implicitly. The character Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” that was played by Gloria Swanson was a washed-up, struggling actress trying to reinvent her career with a screenplay she wrote where she also wants to play the lead role. In “Birdman” Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a washed up and unstable actor who once had fame in a superhero franchise called “Birdman” (Sound familiar to Tim Burton’s “Batman”?) also tries to reinvent his career with a screenplay he wrote, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk When We Talk About Love”. “Birdman” just as “Sunset Boulevard” explored suggests that actors age and it’s an insecure process they can’t face, the fear and reality of irrelevance.
It’s impossible to watch “Birdman”, and not think of it as not being self-reflexive or meta, without recalling Michael Career’s career over his career. Everything from his silly comedies he has done from “Mr. Mom”, and “Multiplicity”, to romantic comedies like “Speechless”, to breakthrough roles in Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Beetlejuice”. In “Birdman”, Riggan’s screen image is also shaped by his real life off-screen lifestyle. Riggan is a fading star, who wants to recapture his glory and fame on Broadway. The film is brilliant in its exploration on narcissism, it raises questions of artists doing this for art, or do choose things that will deliver them more admiration and acknowledgement?
With the play’s opening night approaching, Riggan’s lead actor is injured by a sabotaged accident during a rehearsal and needs to be replaced immediately. At the suggestion of his lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and the recommendation of his producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan ends up hiring Broadway sensation Mike Shiner (A great Edward Norton), which is an instant guarantee for ticket sales, and Shiner has a track record of receiving rave reviews from the New York Times.
As Riggan prepares for the production, he must deal with a pregnancy from his girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his rehab daughter and personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone), as well as his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), in which they still hold a love and care for each other, just not a romantic one.
Riggan’s desires and hopes is that the ambitious Broadway play, where he writes, directs, and stars in will revive his washed up career. There is a great scene in the film where his daughter Sam confronts him and informs him that this play will have no relevance or meaning for her current generation that consists of smart phones, social media, and where fame consists of trending. Riggan’s ambitious Broadway attempt is based on illusion and delusion, an unexpected virtue of ignorance. The New York Times Broadway critic Tabitha (Lindsey Duncan) already has it out for him; she holds disdain for Hollywood and his career, in which Riggan is best known by the public as playing the superhero “Birdman” in three films. Riggan wants to be an artist and his desire is that this play will legitimize his career.
“Birdman” is all around an astonishing work of art. A film that is impressive on a visual, technical, and thematic level. There are many strong themes the film toys around with. Why do we need to be relevant? What do we want out of life? What defines an actor? Is real art better than commercial entertainment? Is success measured by numbers, or by critical reception?
Technically, the film is awe-inspiring on a visual level. The brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who was the Director of Photography of numerous masterpieces that include Alfonso Cuaron’s,“Y Tu Mama Tambien”, “Children of Men”, and “Gravity”, as well as Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”. Here Cuaron and Lubezki together use uninterrupted long takes, often beginning in dressing rooms backstages, and moving down narrow hallways, hidden balconies, and leaving up on the stage. The energetic and lively visual approach suits the material quite well because everything is in continuous turbulence, which works because the entire film takes place in a real Broadway theater.
All around “Birdman” is a masterpiece and dazzling piece of cinema. A great combination of satire, backstage comedy, that’s one of the most refreshing and daring works of art this year.
Rating **** out of ****
Next Week: Nightcrawler