Film Review: ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’

Birdman Film Review

Michael Keaton pulls off a startling comeback in Alejandro G. Inarritu's blistering showbiz satire.

A quarter-century after “Batman” ushered in the era of Hollywood mega-tentpoles — hollow comicbook pictures manufactured to enthrall teens and hustle merch — a penitent Michael Keaton returns with the comeback of the century, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a blisteringly hot-blooded, defiantly anti-formulaic look at a has-been movie star’s attempts to resuscitate his career by mounting a vanity project on Broadway. In a year overloaded with self-aware showbiz satires, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s fifth and best feature provides the delirious coup de grace — a triumph on every creative level, from casting to execution, that will electrify the industry, captivate arthouse and megaplex crowds alike, send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to Keaton’s career.

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Keaton was a controversial choice to play the Caped Crusader back in 1989, though the role was the best and worst thing that could have happened to the “Mr. Mom” star, who became world-renowned but never found another role of that stature — and who didn’t get nearly the same boost from working with Tarantino (on “Jackie Brown”) that John Travolta and Bruce Willis did (from “Pulp Fiction”). As Riggan Thomson, Keaton isn’t playing himself so much as an archetype that few other actors could have fit: an insecure celebrity whose Faustian decision to embody a superhero called Birdman subsequently made it impossible for critics or audiences to take him seriously in anything else. Riggan is one of those roles, like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.,” that relies heavily on the actor’s offscreen persona, and it works because audiences know so little about Keaton’s private life, though they find him endearing even when he’s playing narcissistic characters.

It’s hardly the first time the movies have cannibalized themselves for subject matter, and yet, Riggan’s dilemma seems larger than that of one actor. His crisis is somehow universal, possibly even cosmic, as suggested by the apocalyptic sight of a dying star flaming comet-like across the screen at the outset of the picture. Cut to Riggan, levitating calmly in his dressing room the day before previews begin for his big play. It will be more than half an hour before the next obvious splice — a trick that d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki learned on “Children of Men,” and here he extends the illusion of long, uninterrupted takes for nearly the duration of the entire feature as the behind-the-scenes tension escalates through to opening night.

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For his Broadway debut, Riggan has selected Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” adapting the short story in such a way as to give himself all the glory, from the bathetic monologue that comes just before intermission, to the ballistic finale (invented for the play), which sees his character blowing his brains out moments before the curtain falls. This is a movie-star approach to theater, where truly great stage actors let their co-stars shine. But then, Riggan has something to prove, surrounding himself with pros — including a respected old friend (Naomi Watts) and the much younger actress he happens to be shagging (Andrea Riseborough) — in hopes that they make him look better. And when an accident allows Riggan to replace a weak player with someone better, Mike (Edward Norton), he leaps at the chance, clearly unprepared for what sharing the spotlight with a real actor entails.

If agreeing to play Birdman represented some sort of artistic sellout earlier in Riggan’s career (a compromise compounded when he agreed to make two sequels), then this Carver play ought to earn back his cred. Or so he figures, surrounding himself with a yes-man producer (Zach Galifianakis, in masterfully subtle control of his comedic impulses, except for one moment, where he inexplicably mispronounces “Martin Scorsees”) and other sycophants. Riggan has even gone so far as to convince himself that he has telekinetic powers, using his mind to move objects and taking advice from the disembodied voice of Birdman (Keaton’s own, lowered a register). But his druggie daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), calls his bluff, eviscerating his irrelevance in a rant sure to win over a generation too young to have seen Tim Burton’s “Batman.”

This is perhaps one of the unexpected virtues of ignorance referred to by the film’s evocative full title: Riggan approaches the Carver play without all the baggage of a traditional Broadway actor, but then, theatergoers approach it with different expectations as well, ranging from the spiteful prejudgment of a jaded New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan, trying to seem her Meryl Streepiest) to the naivete of youth. (Oh, to pluck out Sam’s eyes and see Broadway through them!) The film virtually overflows with references, to contemporary blips such as Justin Bieber and established minds like Roland Barthes, managing to be simultaneously crude and urbane, while speaking to different audiences on whatever intellectual level they prefer.

As for intent, Inarritu and co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo are clearly taking a generational stand with this script, which mourns a time when Hollywood actors had the chance to play flawed and fascinating men, as opposed to one-dimensional supermen. Like last year’s “The Great Beauty,” “Birdman” finds itself parsing a deep creative and existential crisis, never allowing its justifiable cynicism to drown out what idealism remains, even as it observes that our finest screen actors — Michael Fassbender, Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner among them — are all cashing comicbook paychecks these days (even as it conveniently pretends that Norton’s “Hulk” never happened).

Norton very nearly steals the show from Keaton at one point. Revealing body and soul alike, both stars are inviting us to laugh at aspects of their real selves, though Norton initially seems the more impressive actor, amplifying his own intense commitment to realism to absurd extremes — with the hilarious result that finding himself in the moment during an early performance proves a rather dramatic cure for his character’s offstage impotence. At first, Keaton doesn’t seem capable of reaching as deep, either in reality or as Riggan, though that’s before the humiliation of wandering through Times Square crowds nearly naked.

“Birdman” offers by far the most fascinating meta-deconstruction of an actor’s ego since “Being John Malkovich,” and one that leaves no room for vanity. From the moment Keaton first removes his wig to the sight of him wrapped in Batman-like facial bandages, his performance reveals itself in layers. The role demands that he appear superficial and stiff onstage, while behaving anything but as the character’s personal troubles mount and his priorities begin to align — at which point, he appears in a dual role, donning the ridiculous Birdman costume to hover, seen only by Riggan, like a cracked-out version of Broadway’s own “Harvey.”

Judged by Howard Hawks’ quality standard — “three great scenes, no bad ones” — “Birdman” features at least a dozen of the year’s most electrifying onscreen moments (scrambled, so as to avoid spoilers): the levitation, the hallucination, the accident, the fitting, the daughter, the critic, the ex-wife, the erection, the kiss, the shot, the end and Times Square. Most films would be lucky to have one scene as indelible as any of these, and frankly, it’s a thrill to see Inarritu back from whatever dark, dreary place begat “21 Grams,” “Babel” and “Biutiful,” three phony, contrived melodramas engineered to manipulate, while posing as gritty commentaries on the harsh world we inhabit.

With “Birdman,” the director has broken from his rut of relying on shaky handheld camerawork to suggest “realism,” or an invasive Gustavo Santaolalla score to force the desired reactions, instead finding fresh ways to delve into the human condition. (He has even altered his onscreen credit, condensing “Gonzalez” to a mere “G.,” as if to acknowledge this new chapter.) Yes, the film is preoccupied with an aging actor’s psyche, but it also addresses fatherhood, marriage, personal integrity and the enduring question of the legacy we leave behind — as in an amusing scene in which Riggan imagines being upstaged by “Batman and Robin” star George Clooney in his obituary. Above all, it is an extremely clever adaptation of Carver’s short story, simultaneously postmodern (ironically, a rather retro label) in its meta self-parody and cutting-edge, owing to the dynamism of its style.

Circling shark-like around Keaton, then darting off to stalk other actors, Lubezki’s camera is alert and engaged at all times, an active participant in the nervous backstage drama. Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” the meticulously blocked shoot cleverly finds ways to mask cuts, using invisible visual effects to stitch together various scenes so it appears that the entire film is one continuous take, even though the events take place over several weeks and in various midtown Gotham locations — primarily Broadway’s St. James Theater, but venturing out anywhere that Riggan can walk or Birdman can fly.

In addition to being a virtuoso stunt in its own right, this single-shot illusion serves to address the critique that screen acting is somehow less demanding than stage acting, since there are no conventional editing tricks in place to shape the performances. The cast has no choice but to ante up, which everyone does in spades, and the film is built generously enough that everyone gets ample time to impress (although it should be noted that none of the background sexual intrigues amount to anything).

Inarritu’s approach is mind-boggling in its complexity, nearly as demanding on Lubezki as “Gravity” must have been, such that even seemingly minor jokes, as when the camera spies the drummer responsible for the pic’s restless jazz score (by Antonio Sanchez) lurking on the edge of the frame, had to be perfectly timed. It’s all one big magic trick, one designed to remind how much actors give to their art even as it disguises the layers of work that go into it.

Film Review: 'Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)'

Reviewed at Gaumont screening room, Paris, Aug. 20, 2014. (In Venice Film Festival — opener, competing; Telluride, New York film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 119 MIN.

Production

A Fox Searchlight Pictures release presented with Regency Enterprises of a New Regency/M Prods./Le Grisbi production, in association with TSG Entertainment, financed in association with Worldview Entertainment. Produced by Alejandro G. Inarritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole. Executive producers, Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners, Sarah E. Johnson.

Crew

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. Screenplay, Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo; play based on the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver. Camera (color), Emmanuel Lubezki; editors, Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione; music, Antonio Sanchez; production designer, Kevin Thompson; art director, Stephen H. Carter; set decorator, George DeTitta Jr.; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Thomas Varga; supervising sound editor, Martin Hernandez; sound designers, Hernandez, Aaron Glascock, Peter A. Brown; re-recording mixers, Skip Leavsay, Tom Ozanich, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano; visual effects producer, Ivy Agregan; visual effects, Rodeo FX; special effects coordinators, Johann Kunz, Conrad Brink; Birdman suit creator, Mike Elizalde’s Spectral Motion; stunt coordinator, Stephen Pope; associate producers, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo; assistant director, Peter Kohn; casting, Francine Maisler.

With

Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Merritt Wever, Jeremy Shamos, Bill Camp, Damian Young.

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  1. whirldfuzzz says:

    the film is built generously enough that everyone gets ample time to impress (although it should be noted that none of the background sexual intrigues amount to anything).

    why should this be noted? did the women not do their job properly?

    this film was great and intense and entertaining and 100% well acted but frustrated me a lot too. i’m bored of women characters being decoration. all the women were so great and acted way beyond the narrow parameters of the writing. also, why did naomi and andrea need to have a kissing scene? OOH SEXY LAYDEEZ CUM FLUFF ME UP *yawn*

    • Thom says:

      It’s a reference to Naomi Watt’s character in Mulholland Dr. She played a wannabe actress who arrived in Hollywood, not that different from her Birdman character where she hoped to make it big in Broadway. She was involved in an erotic lesbian relationship in Mulholland Dr as well, so the parallels are there.

  2. Cat says:

    Great review! Didn’t “get” all of the film’s subtler messages, especially in the end, but loved the acting and uniqueness of script and soundtrack. Ed Norton stood out immensely in this film … his performance was brilliant. It’s definitely worth seeing.

  3. Daryle says:

    To me, if there was a really stunning performance here, it was Norton’s. That’s not to say everyone wasn’t good, because they were, but Norton stands out. Frankly, though, I think this a movie actors might love – as it seems pretty self-indulgent – but its doubtful that general audiences will be as thrilled with it. At the end of it, I felt like “So what?” It really didn’t move me, one way or another, and what was the point of it all? I can’t say I liked any of these characters, either. Finally, several reviewers have seen the “on-and-off-drumming” as something positive/appropriate in this film. I just found it annoying. But given the utter incomprehensibility of the Oscar musical score voting group, it wouldn’t shock me if they give this film an Oscar for its score.

  4. James M. says:

    “…trying to seem her Meryl Streepiest.” Well, that’s condescending.

  5. feingarten says:

    With all this attendant fuss re : Birdman, the reviewer has left me with the impression that the vehicle was designed to specifically allow Keaton to demonstrate his acting prowess in an attempt to legitimatize his career missteps if one were to look upon them that way.

    Or simply put, his life can infuse his art. To have a character stage his comeback by doing theater is an age old concept. There is nothing unique about such an endeavor and here it is a contrived plot point.

    While he indeed maybe Oscar worthy, to call out those 3 actors seems like you, Sir are damning them with faint praise as it were. Each of the 3 cited have engaged in other cinematic activities: Do you not remember Fassbender in Shame/12 Years a Slave or the satiric performance of Downey in Tropic Thunder? Or would there have been the overblown American Hustle without the quiet affecting performance of Bale/Adam/sCooper’s object of desire: Jeremy Renner?

    • Anita says:

      The reviewer didn’t call them out, the movie called them out.

      • feingarten says:

        thanks Anita- why the writers chose to single these 3 out is a bit unfair. Yet it only further serves to substantiate my point- this is a vehicle for Keaton’s comeback. After all, how did he come to the forefront- by portraying a superhero whom many feel is still the best Batman on film?

  6. Bek says:

    Anything with Sir Robery D Jr is guaranteed to succeed! So says my mind anyway xox love your work

    • Cai Cathail says:

      What an excellent review. One of the best I’ve read in a great long time. Thoroughly researched and genuine in it’s praise. Well done. VERY much looking forward to this one. I’ve missed Michael Keaton.

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