Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan and Naomi Watts
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
From Fox Searchlight
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
What can only be compared to avant-garde jazz on psychotropic drugs, Birdman spazzes off the screen in a cacophony of hammered notes, false starts, odd tempos and syncopated rhythms. Somehow it finds a tune in this wall of noise. And what a strangely melodic tune it is.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film — the full title is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — is likely to be the most polarizing movie of the year, the Synecdoche, New York of 2014. If its nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, like some early adopters are already suggesting, it will likely draw out a curious and varied crowd, half of which will walk out shrugging their shoulders. The other half will be on their hands and knees bowing to Birdman’s wacky eccentricities. Let the games begin.
First of all, it’s a stroke of genius. I’ve never seen anything like it. Only Charlie Kaufman’s scripts come to mind when grasping for comparisons, but even those fall short of this film’s brain-like three-dimensional matrix of neural pathways and firing synapses. It’s not just cerebral and existential; it’s densely written and perversely styled, a supernova within one man’s exploding psyche.
The film stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a Broadway director, actor and writer who is carving a piece of himself into a play of literary hero Raymond Carver’s What We talk About When We Talk About Love. Many years before the events of the film, Riggan starred in a series of comic movies called Birdman, and now his professional career is spent playing into and against that unfortunately bombastic legacy. Fans and detractors of his work grow bored of the Carver play but perk up when someone mentions the unfilmed Birdman 4, which is about as likely as a Terry Gilliam’s forever-gestating Don Quixote movie.
Now, Keaton’s casting here is interesting. He was a successful ’80s actor until he was plucked out of the normal acting world and dropped into two Tim Burton Batman movies, which forever colored the rest of his career. He went through some down time, and he took some dud movies, but here he is playing what can only be described as “Michael Keaton on Broadway” in Iñárritu’s spiraling whirlwind of ideas. He’s mesmerizing, and also heart-wrenchingly honest. Truer performances have not yet come to pass.
As Riggan gets ready for his play, he interacts with members of the theater, including a maddeningly brilliant actor (Edward Norton), his daughter and personal assistant (Emma Stone), his lovely ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and his hovering attorney (Zach Galifianakis), who is desperate to get Martin “Score-seez” in the theater’s seats. As Riggan interacts with all these characters, he slowly starts to unravel as his alter-ego, the likely-imaginary, possibly-real Birdman starts to fight for space in his noggin. And as Riggan plays through different variations of his theater character, so does Birdman with Riggan.
The film seemingly takes place within one single day, but watch careful and you’ll see weeks whiz by in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s careful presentation, which includes virtuosic long takes, seamless transitions, nifty editing tricks and silky-smooth Steadicam tracking shots. The camera seems to have no limit as it bobs in and out of dressings rooms, up and down narrow stairwells, onto roofs, effortlessly through audiences or, in a signature scene, through Times Square as Riggan streaks through in his tighty-white briefs. Notice all the mirrors and reflections — never once do you see the camera. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more special effects here than in the last Thor movie. Also of note is the score, which includes dizzying drumwork, some of which can be seen as the drummer appears in scenes as if he were an unseen siren on Birdman’s shores.
This is a brilliant movie, and it features two groundbreaking performances (Keaton and Norton) that are simply awe-inspiring. I did find the film rather hollow in sections. Riggan’s scattered brain, although ceaselessly provocative, would often circle back on itself, and while it seemed like the script was rocketing toward the sun, on reflection it was more likely static. It’s a difficult film, one that makes you dig for its treasures, one that will likely infuriate some viewers.
Birdman is quite simply a once-in-a-billion film. I’ve never seen anything like it, and likely won’t ever again. Even when it frustrated me to no end it was still captivating and hypnotic, and as lyrical as any song, as poetic as any poem and as cinematic as any film.