Birdman Comedy

Eagle-Eyed Film Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

October 24, 2014Ben MK

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The phoenix rises...

How do you begin to describe Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)? Part fantastic fable, part redemption tale, this dark comedy from acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) is unlike anything in the director's previous repertoire. It's also being hailed as the second coming of its star, Michael Keaton. The actor — best known for his turn as Bruce Wayne/Batman twenty-five years ago — has been on a bit of a comeback streak lately, and Birdman may just be the crowning achievement of his career.


Birdman starts out conventionally enough, with an intro consisting of flashes of surreal imagery. We see a fiery object streaking downward through a cloudy, ashen sky, accompanied by a gravelly voiceover from its lead character, Riggan Thomson (Keaton), as Birdman (sounding like Batman by way of Beetlejuice). A few minutes in, however, something about the film's aesthetic strikes you: the camera isn't cutting away from the actors. It just hovers around them, following the action wherever it goes.

This virtually transparent piece of narrative trickery — having the movie play out as one long, unbroken take — works wonders as a way of absorbing moviegoers in the story, which focuses on Riggan, a washed-up actor in search of a second shot at fame.

It's been over twenty years since Riggan last donned the Birdman mantle — bringing the larger-than-life superhero to the big screen in not one, but two, blockbuster movies — but he's been languishing in obscurity ever since. Divorced from his wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and all but estranged from his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), his plans for a career comeback hinge on the success of his latest endeavor: a stage production of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", which he's chosen to adapt, direct and star in.

The movie takes place almost entirely within the walls of New York's 87-year-old St. James Theatre, where Riggan is prepping his play for preview screenings, and it unfolds over the course of a few days, as the previews give way to opening night. Although between the backstage bickering, actors getting drunk on-stage and a theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who vows to destroy his play with a horrendous review (simply because she takes offense to a Hollywood actor intruding on her Broadway territory), things aren't going well.

The story's other featured players include Zach Galifianakis as Brandon, the play's overworked producer; Naomi Watts as its harried lead actress, Lesley; Andrea Riseborough as another actress named Laura, who also happens to be Riggan's possibly-pregnant girlfriend; and Edward Norton as Mike, a big-shot Broadway star who shares a complicated past with Lesley and butts heads with Riggan. As the camera follows both them and Riggan around, we get a glimpse into his world — his thoughts, his fears, his neuroses.

That also means we often see and hear things from Riggan's perspective, such as when the voice of his alter ego speaks to him in moments of stress, beckoning him to return to the role; or when he imagines he has telekinetic powers, and he uses them to send objects in his dressing room smashing against the wall in a fit of rage. In conjunction with the film's score, which consists largely of bouts of staccato drumming that permeate almost every scene, it adds a layer of surrealism to the overall effort — beyond the obvious Batman to Birdman comparisons — piquing when Riggan succumbs to full-on delirium, soaring high over the streets of New York.

Yet, Birdman isn't gimmicky. There's an intimacy about it, the kind that makes it almost feel like a play itself. And that's due in no small part to the actors, each of whom is playing a character who's vulnerable in one way or another. But it's Keaton, of course, who steals the show, with an eye-opening performance laced with raw intensity and dark humor, seeing the world around him as only a man at the end of his rope could. His story — that of someone seeking professional and personal redemption — underpins the movie. And boy does it resonate.

The Bottom Line Not only is Birdman one of the strongest performances of Michael Keaton's storied, four-decade-long career, the film is a blast to watch, grabbing viewers by the scruff of their necks right from the start and never letting go until the closing credits start to roll. Everything about it — from the fly-on-the-wall nature of the cinematography to the top-notch performances — draws you into Iñárritu's vision. Truly one of the most stunning and original cinematic experiences of the year.  Ben Mk

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