Alibi V.23 No.45 • Nov 6-12, 2014 

Film Review

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton mocks his own backstory in high-flying show biz satire

You know it’s a bad day when your imaginary, superhero alter ego is giving you shit.
You know it’s a bad day when your imaginary, superhero alter ego is giving you shit.

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

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone

Over the course of his laudable-if-depressing career (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful), Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has proved himself something of a miserablist, wallowing ceaselessly in other people’s existential pain. It’s not that he’s become a born-again, sunny-side optimist all of a sudden. But his latest effort, the dazzling, delirious flight of fancy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is a watershed change-of-pace in his career.

The film is an odd, occasionally experimental comedy-drama with a cynical mind and a sunny heart. At the center of this small-scale existential crisis is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton rocketing back from nowhere). Riggan is a semi-washed-up Hollywood actor. Twenty years ago he headlined the popular superhero franchise Birdman. Now aged beyond leading man status and coasting on the last of his residuals, Riggan has banked everything on a comeback gamble. He’s writing, directing, producing and starring in a stage adaptation of a sour old Raymond Carver story. This, he believes, will earn him the respect those fat Hollywood paychecks never gave him. The play is days away from opening on Broadway, however, and crises abound.

Riggan’s costar has been K.O.ed by a falling light (which is just as well, he was a terrible actor). Riggan’s lawyer/business partner (Zach Galifianakis, in fighting weight and raring to go) is freaking out over the money this show is hemorrhaging. Riggan’s estranged daughter (Emma Stone) is acting as his personal assistant (but is none too happy with the assignment). And the newest addition to the show (Edward Norton) is an egotistical sociopath (and yet a brilliant actor). Oh, and then there’s that nagging voice in the back of Riggan’s head. It’s actually his voice. Doing Birdman. The gravel-voiced avenger who made him famous. Nowadays, that voice just crops up to nag him about what a loser he is and how everything is about to come crashing down around his ears.

Iñárritu shoots the entire film in what appears to be a single, unbroken take. … The camera, prowling incessantly along behind characters as they weave in and out of rooms, doesn’t even cut when the film takes the occasional leap forward in time.

Birdman’s breathless, blustling narrative is set in and around New York’s venerable St. James Theatre. That’s where Riggan is staging his make-or-break comeback. Iñárritu shoots the entire film in what appears to be a single, unbroken take—like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or any one of a number of Michel Gondry music videos. The camera, prowling incessantly along behind characters as they weave in and out of rooms, doesn’t even cut when the film takes the occasional leap forward in time. In reality there are a number of cuts in the film, but they’re all disguised through some slick camera trickery, leading viewers to believe they’re watching a single, unstoppable sequence. It’s a bold move for a bold film. But it’s not Iñárritu’s only stylistic twist. There are times when our main character seems to have actual superpowers, hurling objects around his dressing room via telekinesis and—ultimately—flying around central Manhattan like his most famous character. But these are probably just visions of our main man’s unhinged imagination running away with him. Probably. Or maybe not. Iñárritu isn’t tipping his hand.

The winkingly meta script is clearly designed to play off Keaton’s own Hollywood backstory as Batman. The actor runs with it, stripping himself bare (literally and figuratively) and giving a career-redefining performance. These are tough emotional waters to navigate, and Keaton does so without a trace of hubris.

It all comes down to Keaton here, who rarely spends a moment out of camera range. The winkingly meta script is clearly designed to play off Keaton’s own Hollywood backstory as Batman. The actor runs with it, stripping himself bare (literally and figuratively) and giving a career-redefining performance. These are tough emotional waters to navigate, and Keaton does so without a trace of hubris. He uses his thinning hair, his softening physique and his every hard-earned wrinkle as a tool for verisimilitude and sympathy. But he’s also got some fine support. Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) has less to do as one of Riggan’s fellow actors, but it’s great to see her nonetheless. Galifianakis (The Hangover) is shockingly good as Riggan’s exasperated pal. Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) stops by as Riggan’s weary-but-patient ex-wife. Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) makes the most of her small role and is rewarded with a couple of crackerjack scenes opposite Edward Norton (Fight Club). And Norton proves to be a perfect foil for Keaton as Mike Shiner, the crazy method actor who shows up late to the party to shake things up. The two work up a hilarious antagonistic relationship that only occasionally degenerates into fisticuffs. Riggan knows that Mike is a manipulative jerk, a time bomb waiting to go off. But he’s also the kick in the pants this production needs. If only Riggan can keep it all together—which, given the collapsing production, the crazy costars, the vengeful theater reviewers and the self-loathing hallucinations, is a big “if.”

Birdman is—like its jazz drum solo soundtrack—a chaotic collection of beats that somehow coalesce. Rambling yet intimate, nasty yet empathetic, bleak yet hopeful, dark yet funny and positively exhilarating in its originality, this near-farcical effort covers a lot of ground. Over the course of its rapid-fire run time, it takes aim at the vapid vanity of Hollywood, the increasing fatuousness of Broadway and the various egos and insecurities that plague creative types. It toys with some wild experimental storytelling techniques and constantly confounds audience expectations. It’s the kind of artistic leap of faith that sends everyone involved hurtling off a cliff. And, in the end, it totally soars.