REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” the latest work from Alejandro González Iñárritu, graced the opening night of the Philadelphia Film Festival. Now that it has been released theatrically in this market, you have another chance to see the film.
This remarkable artistic venture does not hesitate to challenge its audience. The film plumbs a panoply of abstruse philosophical conundrums. As its subtitle invites us to ponder, are we not better off engulfed in ignorance? Does art imitate life or is it ultimately the other way around? What are the respective merits of popular culture, epitomized by movies, as opposed to high art with Broadway as its avatar? What is the nature reality-is it an objective or subjective construct?
The film recalls a time, a quarter of a century ago, before comic book adaptations became an inescapable staple of multiplexes. Back in 1989, Tim Burton, then principally known for his quirky sensibilities, launched the genre in earnest. He ventured into making mainstream movies with “Batman” and its sequel. Michael Keaton was tapped to play the Caped Crusader in the new franchise. The casting was greeted with unfettered derision. Physically unassuming and known principally for his comedic exuberance, Keaton was hardly an intuitive choice to portray a dark, brooding comic book action hero. The brace of Batman films redefined Keaton as a once serious actor, who had sold out. After donning a spandex outfit, could Keaton ever regain any modicum of credibility-or was he doomed to languish in dreck like “Jack Frost” and “First Daughter” as his perpetual penance? “Birdman” offers a resounding no to the latter prospect.
In a stroke of savvy casting, Keaton portrays a washed up actor, Riggan Thomson. He had played the superhero character of Birdman in a triptych of big budget Hollywood blockbusters. Now, Riggan seeks atonement. He makes his Broadway debut by producing, adapting, and starring in the staged, four character version of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Could this usher in Riggan’s career comeback? Could it be his personal salvation?
An early scene depicts Riggan inexplicably suspended in a midair lotus pose as he meditates. How is he doing this? How about his intermittent displays of telekinetic powers? Are these real or a manifestation of his compromised reality testing? In addition, it turns out that Riggan has a friend, who only he can hear and see. It’s his Birdman persona, titivated in full winged regalia and speaking in a basso profundo growl.
Riggan has invested all of the lucre, which he made playing a superhero, into financing this vainglorious project. In rehearsals, it becomes apparent that his principal supporting actor is horrendous. His attorney/publicist, Brandon (Zach Galifianakis in an atypical and marvelously restrained performance ) advises him that the advance ticket sales are bleak. What to do? Using his telekinetic powers, Riggan causes a heavy item to fall on his lackluster co-star knocking him out of commission. Riggan learns from a cast member, Lesley (Naomi Watts), that her boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), has recently become available to fill the void. Mike is an acclaimed actor, whose name on the marquee sells tickets. He shows up ready to roll, having already memorized all of his lines and those of other cast members. Mike seems like a providential solution. Alas, Mike lives up to his reputation. He is notoriously narcissistic, self-indulgent, and difficult to deal with. Mike fancies himself a serious artiste, not a mere movie actor like Riggan.
Inevitably, interpersonal conflicts erupt between Riggan and Mike. This tension would have been adequate to sustain a feature length film. However, the brilliant screenplay offers far more. The viewer is treated to a concatenation of themes, story lines and characters, which achieve a marvelous synergy.
Riggan is shagging his much younger leading lady, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and may have impregnated her. He is trying to repair a ruptured relationship with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who has just been released from drug rehab. She hovers around the wings as a production assistant, spewing sardonic verbiage. What about Sam’s attraction to Mike, who already is enmeshed in a contentious domestic partnership with Lesley. Riggan has a bittersweet dynamic with his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who is concerned about their daughter, Sam. Then, there is the splenetic critic from “The New York Times,” Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who is intent upon destroying Riggan, as a symbol of everything she despises about Hollywood and pop culture. The film is punctuated with repeated conversations between Riggan and his Birdman alter-ego.
“Birdman” is chocked full of memorable vignettes. To avoid spoilers, I will refer to these by shorthand only. These include a litany of scenes, which feature vodka substitution, spontaneous erection, fisticuffs, flying, rooftop exchanges, and most hilariously, the underwear strut.
You might expect that a film with so many well-defined scenes, involving such an extensive cast would prove episodic and disjointed. However, this is not the case. The masterful camerawork of cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”), ties all of the elements together. By obfuscating splices, he creates the illusion of protracted, uninterrupted shots, as he repeatedly zooms between Riggan and the other players.
The dialogue includes some real zingers, which examine the tension between talent and celebrity. The theater critic snidely castigates Riggan, “You’re not an actor, you’re a celebrity.” “That clown doesn’t have half your talent and he’s making a fortune in that tin-man get-up,” is an obvious reference to Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man character. As Mike Shiner archly observes, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.”
Since his directorial debut with “Amores Perros,” Iñárritu has displayed evidence of extraordinary talent. The intricately plotted “Birdman” represents a new highpoint for its Mexican helmsman and co-screenwriter. Replete with a stunning career comeback by Michael Keaton, “Birdman” is a conceptually titillating, technically mindboggling, and dramatically compelling triumph.
BIRDMAN ***1/2 R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence) 119 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.