Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Review)


"The entire project is a fascinating tale of drive, ambition, and the quest to stay relevant, buoyed by incredible performances, some of which are questionably channeling real life..."


by Steve Pulaski

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is such a great film because it fully realizes its concept of an actor who is caught up in a sea of disillusionment and pessimism, subconsciously believing he has peaked after starring in a trilogy of superhero films where he played a hero named "Birdman." He believes anything he'll do after that particular series will not go over well at all with critics or audiences, and he'll forever be known for starring in a series of loud, obnoxious films in a full-size bird costume. These pessimistic thoughts, eating away at his mind as they float from his subconscious and into his conscious, are voiced by his Birdman character, who he often sees enter his world in what appears to be a schizophrenic nightmare. In these visions, our lead can levitate things with his mind, and sees his alter ego before him and is taunted by ideas and thoughts of failure and uncertainty for the rest of his life.

The actor is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who is now directing, writing, producing, and starring in a stage play adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." The play is produced by his best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis), stars his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) in her debut role, and Mike (Edward Norton), a pompous and arrogant thespian. Riggan is also consistently brought down by his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict, who is trying her best to be his assistant but also his guiding force. She reminds him in a knockout monologue how this whole project is just expensive, personal reassurance for himself that he still matters, when really, he is a frightened hack like everybody else who "doesn't matter" and needs to "get over it." It's one of the best cynical monologues I've heard in years and serves as a reiteration of the truth that occasionally emerges from my cynical side.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Release Date 17 October 2014
Steve's Grade: A

Iñárritu directs the film in a unique way, unafraid to make his camera unstable and wobbly as he focuses on the backs of his characters and walks with them from room to room, or scene to scene, giving the feel of a hectic auditorium that's putting on an ambitious production. Birdman is edited and directed like the entire film was shot in one long continuous take, as if Iñárritu yelled "places, ready, speed, and action" once before hitting "record" and not pressing "stop" for the next two hours, setting the film in real-time and conducting it as so. Apparently, the film was not shot in one long take, and was simply seamlessly directed and edited to replicate the feel, leading me to proclaim that editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, at the very least, deserve an Oscar nomination for some of the finest, if not the finest, editing work of the year. To tie a film together this seamlessly doesn't only take skill and drive, it takes time and attention to detail, something Crise and Mirrione have demonstrated here in an incalculable manner.

If the editing was the sole thing to praise Birdman for, it would still be a fairly solid film. But like an infomercial, there's more to note. For one, the quartet of writers behind this project (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo) craft a wonderful story of reassurance and one man's attempt to stay relevant in the modern world. We are plunged into the world of Riggan, working around the clock, tirelessly trying to put on a quality play for no other purpose than his own ego. If we spent less valuable and telling time with Riggan, we may write him off as an egotist and a cocky, self-indulgent loser in need of reassurance in the form of a glowing review from a pompous New York film critic and a deafening round of applause. However, this is not only what we see, but a man clearly haunted and troubled by his own thoughts, held at the mercy of the voices in his head in a manner that makes him almost want to jump off a balcony and take his own life. He needs this, and while his actions may be selfish and contemptible at times, we continuously are reminded of why he's doing what he's doing and at least go on to respect him by the time the credits roll.

I have a feeling Keaton really connects with Riggan Thomson in the regard that, if you recall, Keaton was once Batman for two films and while went on to do other major film roles, quite possibly suffered the same kind of functional, creative depression his character in Birdman faces. This reason is perhaps why Keaton throws himself into the role of Riggan, becoming a physical improbability at the age of sixty-three, lending himself to the stunts and the kinetic energy of his performance. Riggan is a character that one could almost call bipolar, cycling through a round of emotions like a child, and Keaton pulls it off with such conviction and heart that it's worth noting time and time again. He is surrounded by a sea of not just solid performances (particularly from Norton), but great characters with serious personal issues, which only emphasize his character's unsatisfied state even more.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), despite boasting heavy and sorrowful themes, also manages to be deeply hilarious, especially with its ending, which makes the case for achieving great art in the way that Woody Allen may mock or belittle. The entire project is a fascinating tale of drive, ambition, and the quest to stay relevant, buoyed by incredible performances, some of which are questionably channeling real life, and edited and directed with such craft that I'd be damned if this doesn't make my list for favorite films at the end of the year.


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