Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
courtesy Fox Searchlight
Michael Keaton is a washed-up actor who walked away from a popular superhero franchise in Birdman
The more accurate parenthetical subtitle to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
would be (The Unexpected Virtue of Contradictions)
The film derides critical acclaim and Hollywood superlatives yet clearly craves the same. It’s an acting master class that skewers the self-indulgent acting process. It exalts Broadway while satirizing its untidy backstage. It’s a motion picture that proselytizes the artistic purity of the theatre. It scoffs at social media and reality TV until ultimately conceding their power and influence. One character makes loud pronouncements about instilling truth in art but can’t cope with reality beyond the stage. And its star may either possess supernatural abilities or just be mentally deranged.
At the film’s outset, Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton in a tour de force
) and his stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"
is in shambles. Riggan’s personal assistant is Sam (Emma Stone), his neurotic daughter and a recovering drug addict. Riggan is having an affair with one of the play's female stars, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who claims she’s pregnant. And on the eve of the opening preview, a falling stage light conks Riggan’s co-star on the head, knocking him out of the production.
Desperate, Riggan brings in Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an über-method actor whose reputation also boosts the box office. However, Mike is also impossibly self-righteous about himself and his craft, declaring that Hollywood-produced movies are a form of “cultural genocide.” Mike’s abrasiveness quickly wears on Riggan and Lesley (Naomi Watts). Along with being one of the play's performers, she also has a failing relationship with Mike. During the second preview performance, Mike gets an erection during a scene in bed with Lesley on stage and attempts to cajole the insecure starlet into having sex with him during the show.
Complicating matters further are Riggan’s personal demons, starting with his penchant for alcohol and self-destruction. But the meta elephant in the room is that Riggan is an aging, washed-up film actor who once portrayed the superhero “Birdman” in a successful movie blockbuster trilogy. However, the role that made Riggan famous is now an albatross around his professional neck, and he sees this play—which he’s financing, adapting, directing and starring in—as his last chance at relevancy. But Riggan is haunted by the guttural, disembodied voice of Birdman, who mocks Riggan’s stage aspirations and the notion that he can purge his Hollywood roots.
The allusions to Keaton’s former movie turn as Batman are quite intentional. There’s also actual angst in the theater community over movie stars brought in to anchor big-budget Broadway productions, or who choose to slum along the Great White Way to boost their critical bona fides. In Birdman
, that tension is embodied by New York Times
theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who resents Riggan’s presence and informs him in advance that she’ll pen a scathing review of his play. In return, Riggan lets loose an overbroad screed against critics, charging them with trafficking in “labels” without understanding or contributing to the art they critique.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, no stranger to fickle criticism, channels this torrent of tensions into a film that is both exhilarating and infuriating. Filmed largely on location at the venerable St. James Theatre in New York City, Birdman
is made to appear as one extended take thanks to artful film transitions. Many individual scenes last 8 to 10 minutes, comprising long tracking shots traversing the theatre’s labyrinthine corridors.
The gliding camerawork of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and overlapping dialogue conjures a Robert Altman-esque air. Indeed, Altman’s Short Cuts
is based on several Raymond Carver short stories, the backstage theater drama evokes elements of both Altman’s Prairie Home Companion
and his The Player
, a similarly sharp satire of the entertainment industry.
The film falters along its edges, including dalliances between Riggan and Laura, Laura and Lesley and Mike and Sam that seemingly exist only as offshoots of this high-pressure milieu. Zack Galifianakis is terrific as Jake, Riggan’s put-upon agent-lawyer-only friend but Amy Ryan in the role of Riggan's ex-wife Sylvia shows up merely as filler.
Iñárritu also pulls an Icarus, eschewing a couple of durable endings for a denouement that feels like one flight of fancy too far. Still, the sum of these manic parts makes for a dynamic whole, paced by Keaton’s uninhibited, tailor-made performance. Birdman
’s messages might be muddled, but its delivery soars.