Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Regency Enterprises, New Regency Pictures)
A washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself in the days leading up to the opening of a Broadway play.
Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo. Executive Producers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole.
Maybe it’s just me, but it is a bit of a thrill when you’re watching a movie and realize you’re watching something bold and daring and makes you say to yourself, “I have never seen anything like this before!” That’s what it’s like watching Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) for the first time.
Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thompson, a has-been actor best known for playing a costumed superhero two decades ago. He’s trying to make a comeback and be taken seriously as an actor by producing and starring in his own Broadway production adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. What transpires over the course of two hours is one of the most fascinating exploration of emotion, self doubt, love, hate, fear and a bit of madness…all in one, continuous, single shot.
A film about a play production is nothing new, but Birdman breaks convention stylistically to capture the essence of theater in a manner unlike ever before. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki collaborate to present Birdman as in a single, continuous camera shot for the duration of the picture. Imagine the Copacabana sequence in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Now imagine that’s shot continuing for two hours. The genius, simplicity and complexity it takes to compose a film with this technique is rather amazing. It allows the actors to truly delve into the meatier dialogue of their roles and inhabit the entire space, rather than be confined to a series of one- and two-shot angles.
Cinematic technique notwithstanding, Birdman is full of huge performances. As Riggan, Michael Keaton turns in the role of a lifetime that, in many ways, feels inspired by his own career trajectory. Always a much better actor than ever credited, Keaton taps into Riggan’s insecurities and fears as he rolls the dice on his production. Keaton’s performance raised the bar for everyone in the cast. Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton both turn in sterling performances in supporting roles. As Riggan’s lawyer, confidante and chief supporter, Galifianakis is showing he is more than just an oafish member of The Wolfpack. Norton’s performance as self absorbed stage actor Mike is, at times, overwhelming, but that’s because Mike is an overwhelming character. As a method actor who detests celebrities, Norton’s Mike is pompous, obnoxious and completely engrossing.
Reflecting the rhythm of an actual play, all the lead characters in Birdman have their respective moments in the spotlight. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough—lead actresses in the play—are able to inject depth and emotion into their limited roles which are severely limited by Keaton and Norton’s heavyweight performances. They don’t get outshone. They just don’t have as much material to work with as their male counterparts. As Riggan’s daughter/assistant Sam, Emma Stone turns in the best performance of her career. Her darkness and vulnerability aren’t too far beneath the scar tissue her character has built over time as a result of addiction and an absent father. The chemistry between Stone and Keaton as father and daughter are magnificent.
More than just about producing a risky play, the subtext of Birdman is hardly concealed. Though slightly preachy, its indictment of art vs. commercial blockbuster, actor vs. celebrity is rather prescient in an era where every other release features a costumed comic book superhero.
So what is it all about? What is the virtue of ignorance? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. Birdman is beautifully constructed and acted; a truly groundbreaking film. Birdman one of the best films you will see.
RATING: ****-1/2 stars (out of five)