Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

10 Nov

Michael-Keaton-on-the-set-of-Birdman-2014-Movie-Image-3-600x338

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Birdman” (subtitled “Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is one of the most ambitious, unique films to come out this year (or any year). It’s a film that shows the mental breakdown of a washed-up actor trying to redeem himself with a comeback through Broadway. It’s a darkly funny, nearly spot-on portrait of theater life that goes into the pains of what goes into a show (with some exaggerations, for laughs) and what it will mean to cast members, both newcomer & veteran, while also taking time out to not only go into the main character’s disturbing inner psyche but also to attack pop-culture sensibilities that continue to ask for everything similar to the modern blockbusters we get every summer (specifically “Transformers”). The result is a black comedy that’s both disturbing to watch and yet fun to watch.

Michael Keaton stars as aging actor Riggan Thomson, who was once famous for playing the star of a superhero franchise called “Birdman” which was a big success. But after refusing to star in a fourth Birdman film, nothing was ever the same, as his life and career went downhill. His attempt at a comeback is to adapt a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway play. Now in previews for an opening, Thomson writes, directs, and yes, acts in the play. After one of his actors is injured in an accident (which, by the way, results in a hilarious discussion between Thomson and his lawyer/manager/friend Brandon, played effectively against type by Zach Galifianakis), Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is quickly called in to replace him. Shiner is an undeniably talented actor who brings dedication to his work, but he’s also known for upstaging his directors in a pompous, obnoxious manner.

Also included in the play’s cast are Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is new to Broadway and sees this as her big stage debut, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Thomson’s lover who may or may not be pregnant. Thomson’s assistant is his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is recently out of rehab and tries to convince her father that the best way to make a comeback is by going viral. As Thomson tries to put everything together while his cast faces their own issues, his fear of failure and continuing a reputation as a “celebrity” rather than an “actor” starts to get to him.

“Birdman” is an effectively disturbing character study, showing us an actor who peaked too soon and is obsessed with reliving the fame while also trying something new with his career. He even hears the growling, grumbling voice of Birdman (sounding very similar to Michael Keaton’s Batman voice) inside his head, telling him to, in a way, become Birdman again. This is a man who let his life choices haunt him later on because he can’t adapt to modern culture and/or he wishes there were a simpler (or better) time when he could make a real impression. Now, he’s so laughable or disrespected that a New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) pretty much tells Thomson right to his face that she’s going to write a scathing review about the play before she even sees it. This guy lets it practically consume his life.

By the way, that scene where the critic harshly lets it all out to Thomson is a really weak point in the film. That’s because any critic who would slam a work before opening night would lose their job almost immediately!

The cinematography for “Birdman” is unbelievably good. One of the most distinguished qualities of “Birdman” is that, with the exception of an epilogue, looks it was filmed in one long, continuous take. The camera hovers through corridors, goes up and down long flights of stars, even flies from place to place in the city, as Thomson fantasizes himself as Birdman. Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot most of Alfonso Cuaron’s work (and also won a cinematography Oscar for “Gravity”), shot this film, and he does a tremendous job at making the audience feel like they’re inhabiting the same world as the characters. I think only once did I notice the seams in editing, because I was constantly wondering how they managed to make it all seem like one long take. Not even in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” or the 2012 horror film “Silent House” did I question how this style was done. “Birdman” was also directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose previous films include “21 Grams” and “Babel,” and he’s known for making films in an unconventional way. Well, how’s that for unconventional? In a time with fast editing overpowers quality, it’s nice to see something of this style. Even when Thomson fantasizes about being the center of a “modern blockbuster,” with explosions, robots, and all sorts of loud mayhem in the city that mainstream audiences keep asking for (at least, according to the movie), it still manages to keep that style without visible cuts. That can’t have been easy to pull off.

The acting? Excellent! This is Michael Keaton’s big comeback role, if you ask me. He’s perfectly cast and conveys a certain flair to his performance that can’t be copied. He hasn’t been this good in years. Edward Norton deserves Best Supporting Actor consideration for playing a role that pokes fun at Norton’s own reputation while making the character his own. He’s brilliant here; you just can’t take your eyes off him (which is why it’s a little disappointing that he disappears almost entirely from the film in the final act). Solid support includes Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and also Amy Ryan as Thomson’s ex-wife who still cares for him.

Overall, “Birdman” is a wonderfully-made, well-written, thought-provoking film with brilliant cinematography and acting. It’s a riveting change of pace for those who are tired of the usual stuff people like Michael Bay spews out every year, or hell, every season. But more importantly, it’s one of the best films of the year.

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