Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Posted: April 4, 2015 in Movie Review
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Birdman (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

My fragile little mind finds it hard to accept that Tim Burton’s “Batman” is more than a quarter-century old. Since then, I’ve grown up, and that movie’s stars have grown old. March of Time and all that jazz. Still, even as Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has since transcended the superhero genre, nothing I’ve seen has persuaded me that anyone other than Michael Keaton can be thought of as the definitive Bruce Wayne/Batman. It’s easily his most recognizable role, with “Beetlejuice” running second. Although he’s continued to work in the years since (he featured as a terrific Dogberry in Kenneth Brannagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”), I hadn’t seen Keaton in anything truly meaningful in a long time… and then “Birdman” came along.

Like Keaton, the character of Riggan Thomson is a Hollywood film actor who is best known for playing a costumed superhero. But, that was years ago, and now all Riggan wants is to be relevant again, to be able to surprise people with the talent he knows he still has inside of him. To accomplish this, he has taken it upon himself to write, direct and star in a Broadway adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a short story by Raymond Carver. After a falling light fixture injures his co-star, an incident of which Riggan insists he was the cause, method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) enters as a replacement. Almost immediately, the two start to butt heads, with Mike sabotaging one preview of the play and upstaging Riggan in the next. If he’s looking for support from his daughter Samantha (Emma Stone), he doesn’t get it. She unloads on him, telling him in the grand scheme of things that he doesn’t matter, and that he’s only doing this play in some futile attempt at bolstering his own image.

The play’s final preview is as problematic as the rest. Riggan spots Mike and Samantha flirting with each other, the visual of which has him so distressed that he steps outside for a smoke close to time for him to return to the stage, not thinking about the fact that the door will lock him out of the theatre automatically after it closes, which it does, with part of his robe caught in it. Forced to circle around to the front of the building in naught but his underwear, Riggan achieves the sort of publicity for his play that he could never have planned for, his half-nude sprint having gone viral through social media. Unfortunately, he suffers a setback when a prominent critic promises to “kill” his play, citing her disdain for celebrities who pretend to be actors as her reasoning. After getting drunk and spending a night unconscious in the street, Riggan imagines himself leaping off the roof of a building and taking flight, ending up back at the theatre. In reality, he’d simply taken a taxi cab. Keeping what the critic had said in mind, Riggan has become convinced that the only way to impress anybody is by doing something shocking. To accomplish this, he replaces the prop gun for the play’s final scene (in which his character kills himself) with a real one.

Since the release of “Birdman” in 2014, much has been made of the ambiguous nature of the film’s ending. It is dependent upon whether or not you believe Riggan survives his suicide attempt. The range of interpretation is vast, with some seeing it as triumphant while others imagine the conclusion as resembling a eulogy. For a movie that was already fantastical to start with (the first time we see Riggan, he’s imagining himself levitating above his dressing room floor), it is better in this case, I think, not to have one clear answer.

With “Birdman,” director Alejandro González Iñárritu has crafted a remarkable work of art. One of the most impressive things about it is the decision to film it to look as though it has been done in one long, unbroken take. In addition to Michael Keaton, Iñárritu gets oustanding performances from each member of his cast, especially Edward Norton and Emma Stone. In particular, the scene in which Samantha trivializes her father’s ambitions is Emma Stone’s best of her young career. Also terrific are Naomi Watts as Lesley (Mike’s ex and a Broadway first-timer), Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s girlfriend and co-star, and Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend and lawyer, Jake. Like Keaton, Galifianakis is proving that he’s more than just a niche actor, stepping as far away from the “Hangover” series with his “Birdman” role as possible.

I’ve seen a lot of movies about show business, and “Birdman” beats the heck out of all of them. It has the humor of “All That Jazz” and the mind-bending psychedelia of “Black Swan,” finding a comfortable middle ground between both. It’s also a great conversation piece, one I expect to be talking about for years to come. Long have I been a fan of Keaton’s, but now I will always look on his earlier work with a renewed appreciation for the effort it took to bring life to his other characters. It’s true that I may always hear Danny Elfman music when I look at him, but “Birdman” has raised the bar to all-new heights for Michael Keaton, and I’ll be interested to see where his career will take flight in the near future.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Well stated, Chuck!!!! I just hope that Michael Keaton is offered some great roles in the near future.
    This movie actually offered something new and fresh, holding my interest so much that I am surprised I remembered to breathe.

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