Michael Keaton Soars in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Weird And Brilliant Birdman.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts.
Playing At: Landmark Magnolia and Angelika Plano.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that separates itself from the rest. It cuts to the bone and gives you such a euphoric rush, you want to scream at the top of your lungs at the top of a mountain so everyone hears your roar: THIS IS A MUST-SEE MOVIE!.
That movie, right now, is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a strange, beautiful and loony story about passion and pain but also a crazy cool celebration of filmmaking, movie magic and all of the glorious reasons why we love watching motion pictures.
Birdman is the story of Riggan Thomson, an arrogant, regret-filled has-been who was once very famous for playing an iconic superhero called Birdman. Michael Keaton, who in real life is famously known for once playing Batman, fits comfortably in this role — an arguably fictionalized version of his own self.
Riggan is now trying to reclaim the glory days he once had by directing and starring in the Broadway play of Raymond Carter’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The way things have started off — Riggan lost an actor during a freak accident on the first rehearsal — everything's looking pretty bleak. But he's determined and willing to do whatever's necessary to make this play happen. If the end product is a failure, well, it won't be for lack of trying.
Oh, and here's one thing you should know about Riggan: He can fly and move stuff with his mind. Or so he thinks.
The film is tied together narration voiced by Riggan's alter ego — a tougher, meaner and more cynical version of that character he once graced on screen three times. Birdman is not his voice of reason; in fact, he just talks a lot of shit and makes Riggan feel worse for becoming what he feared most, a nobody.
As the bruised and frazzled hero of this story, Michael Keaton is at the top of his form. A lot of actors like to play things safe, but, here, Keaton plays the King of Crazy Shit and fires an arsenal of emotions in all directions. He puts his vulnerability on full display and holds nothing back. He delivers the proper level of hysteria Riggan needs and is a real force to be reckoned with. His Birdman is a deeply complex character — and no one else could play him but Keaton, really. No one. He was, as the saying goes, born to play this role. It’s the most courageous performance of his career and, in turn, he's now the man to beat at the Oscar race for Best Actor.
Just as impressive is this film's presentation. Birdman takes place a few days before the play's opening night and runs all the way through opening night's first performance. But, notably, the film is shot and edited to look like one long take. We watch as the actors rehearse in front of mirrors, then follow them through the confined halls of their theater and into the scenes of the play they're practicing. Even though writer and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) has gone on record as saying that there indeed are cuts in the film, they're tough to spot. Iñárritu's goal was to trick audiences here — and, with great wonder, he pulls off that grand illusion thanks to stellar efforts from editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who shot two of Alfonso Cuarón's films that have their own insane long takes, Children of Men and Gravity). Impressively, nothing is lost in this ploy, and, in turn, Birdman is a celebration of mise en scène and how it's best used.
It accomplishes this thanks to tightly controlled performances from a wicked supporting cast: Emma Stone as Riggan's equally bruised daughter, fresh out of rehab; Zach Galifianakis plays the always-distraught lawyer/manager/best friend whose job is to make this play stick together like glue even though it’s hysterically falling apart; Naomi Watts, in a role clearly written for her, flashes how much she can offer against type; and Amy Ryan (The Office), Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion), Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) and Edward fucking Norton each make the most of their turns in front of the camera, too.
Everyone gets their day in the sun. But it's Norton who has the most fun. As Mike, the other main actor in the play, Riggan has to bow down to Mike's every move, even though it makes his blood boil. Norton's character revels in this shameless bravado: He's good at what he does, and everyone in the room knows it. And, clearly having the best time ever in this role, Norton doesn't just chew up every scene he's in, he devours it whole.
Still, Birdman is very much a film about pain and regret. At times, Riggan sits in front of his dressing room mirror and ruminates on his past. We know exactly what he’s thinking: “What have I become?” His career was once perfect, but his life has always been broken. He was never a good father to his daughter and it haunts him. And we watch as his alter ego comes out of his cage and confronts him with the harsh realities that his selfish, fragile identity has consciously ignored for so long. It's a very effective driving point in the film — and Riggan is smart enough to recognize these problems and how he can fix a few of them, even if his defenses start to crumble along with the play he's trying his damnedest to make. He's in a perpetual state of defeat, and it's a tragic thing to behold. But it's Riggan's determination to change all this that makes the film so bizarrely touching.
Birdman is a marvelous achievement in film-making. It shows how limitless Iñárritu’s imagination really is. His previous films — Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros and Biutiful — deserve all of the acclaim they got, but Birdman is a masterful work of artistry and perfection. What’s so wild about that statement is that Birdman is very much about making a masterful work of artistry and perfection, too.
Given that, Birdman could've easily become a heavy-handed beatdown. Rather, it evenly displays the funny and the serious, the weird and the sad, and with refreshing honesty. It's a truly unique cinematic experience.
A good film invites you into its world. A great film makes you a part of it. Birdman is a great film.