Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a true original; a work of technical wizardry, virtuoso acting, and compelling storytelling unlike anything we’ve seen before. Featuring only a few locations and long, single takes of dialogue-driven material, the film never lets up for an instant and always keeps the viewer on the balance beam between reality and the surreal. It also deftly portrays what it must be like to be an aging actor, famous for one role, looking to make a comeback.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson (is that an actor’s name or what?), a down-and-out actor looking to revitalize his career on Broadway. Riggan is only known for playing a character called Birdman in a series of successful movies some decades earlier. As his show ramps up, so do his problems. His daughter and assistant, Sam (Stone), has drug problems. His big actor “get” for the play, Mike (Norton), is talented, but incredibly egotistical. His other primary actress, Lesley (Watts), and his manager, Jake (Galifianakis), are doubting that the show will even last beyond the preview performances. It’s a lot to balance for a guy who’s fallen behind the times with technology and just wants to be relevant again.
No written synopsis can do justice to the fire that everyone involved with Birdman brings to the table. This is a tightly-written, powerfully-performed, enthralling experience. We’ve seen the single take used as a novelty before, but co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu (with help from cinematography wizard Emmanuel Lubezki) practically makes it a character in the film. It gives the scenes containing stage acting, for which there are no “edits,” a true authenticity. Iñárritu makes clever use of the theatre’s narrow hallways in transferring the action from room to room. From a purely technical standpoint, this is the most impressive film since last year’s Gravity.
But Birdman is really an actor’s movie. This screenplay must have really struck a chord with Michael Keaton, clearly best known as the title role in Tim Burton’s Batman films. Here he turns in the work of his career, playing Riggan as tireless, hard-working, and determined to make everything right in his life. Keaton’s range is unbelievable, transitioning from comedy (of which there’s a lot of) to calamity seamlessly. This is a meaty, demanding role, and he owns it. Fine supporting work is turned in by Emma Stone as Riggan’s strung-out daughter. She delivers a powerful monologue that’s as tragic as it is hurtful. Edward Norton earns the most laughs as Mike, the pompous actor who’s a walking human resources violation. His character doesn’t have quite the arc of the others, but Norton brings the goods.
Birdman really takes some unexpected turns in its final thirty minutes, culminating in an ambiguous ending that is practically guaranteed to divide audiences. There are multiple, plausible explanations, and it only seems appropriate after the what-the-hell-is-happening fun Iñárritu has with his audience. Birdman is a living, breathing machine designed to entertain in every way possible. It’s an amazing breath of fresh air, flawlessly acted and directed – and one of 2014’s best movies.
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Length: 119 Minutes
Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.
Theatrical Release: October 17, 2014 (Limited)
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu & Nicolás Giacobone & Alexander Dinelaris & Armando Bo
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton