Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan.

Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman is a film that is carefully edited to appear to be a single take. The reason is simple: this is a story of a famous Hollywood actor (Riggan Thomas – played perfectly by Michael Keaton) trying to prove his relevance and revive his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s poetry. In order to create the feeling of a single, live performance, Alejandro Inarritu merges the beginning and ends of takes together, much in the same way Hitchcock did in Rope. And like Rope some of those hidden seams are brilliant, and some are obvious and a bit corny. Regardless of how smooth the editing is or isn’t, the technique is very successful at creating the sensation of watching a play unfold live, and all the actors are up to the challenge, turning in incredible performances in long takes.

As Riggan, whose last great role was a masked superhero in a black suit with wings in 1992 (no, not Batman Returns), Keaton perfectly captures the abrasiveness and insecurity of a talented actor who is afraid he is becoming irrelevant. As his costars, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are great at working with his eccentricities, supporting him, and arguing with him. Emma Stone gives what may be her best performance yet as Riggan’s long-suffering daughter who has just gotten out of rehab. And Edward Norton plays against Keaton perfectly as the super talented but borderline crazy actor who threatens to steal Riggan’s production from under him. Both Norton and Keaton are great as their stage lives being to blend with their real lives, albeit in very different ways. Finally, as the manager trying to deal with all these personalities, Zach Galifianakis is great as the straight man in the midst of comedy.

Birdman is clearly an actors’ movie, and the entire cast drives the film, but director Alejandro Inarritu highlights their terrific performances with his unobtrusive camera, making frequent use of behind the shoulder tracking shots and slowly spinning camera. Some viewers may find the style irritating, but for me, the techniques on display enhanced the drama of the film. Inarritu places the viewer right into the world of the film, allowing him to see the brokenness of these characters, their desire for greatness and importance, and their struggles to achieve something worthwhile, a struggle which Sam (Riggan’s daughter played by Emma Stone) cynically insists is futile, because everyone is terrified of the world and ultimately is irrelevant. That desire comes to a head when Riggan confronts the uptight New York Time’s theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) in a scene that is essentially a dare to any critic to dislike this film.

It would be all too easy to apply Riggan’s takedown of Tabitha to someone who writes a negative review of Birdman. Riggan rips into her and her obsession with labeling everything she reviews, and her tendency to pan anything she cannot easily define. He insists that true art, which is what he is doing, is a baring of the artist’s soul, and it defies labels and reflects the messiness of life. Birdman certainly reflects the messiness of a broken family, unstable careers, and jealous insecure actors, but whether the resolution of the critic takedown is a shallow affirmation of every actors’ desire or a profound insight into performing and human nature is debatable. Since I am very enthusiastic about the rest of the film, I am inclined to lean toward the latter, but I would not argue too much with someone who insisted on the former. Either way, the film introduces an idea I find fascinating and worth pondering: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Do these foolish conceited actors have insight to offer us, or is this just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Not only is Birdman driven by excellent performances from a talented cast, it also thoughtfully explores many aspects of performing. It takes an unflattering look at the backstage lives of performers who are overly concerned about their careers and public perception, and it shows human beings who are afraid as they try to do what they know best. Like the seamless editing, these characters struggle to separate their personal lives from the stage, but their ignorance gives birth to a spectacular depiction of heartfelt guts and all performances that are well worth observing.

 

Content Advisory: Sexual references and some obscene language throughout, several shots of men in briefs one involving an erection, drug use, and an attempted suicide.                              MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A-

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