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Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance Movie Review

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

Theatrical Release: October 17, 2014 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu / Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo

Cast: Michael Keaton (Riggan Thomson), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Edward Norton (Mike Shiner), Andrea Riseborough (Laura), Amy Ryan (Sylvia), Emma Stone (Sam), Naomi Watts (Lesley), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha Dickinson), Merritt Wever (Annie), Jeremy Shamos (Ralph), Bill Camp (Crazy Man), Damian Young (Gabriel)


Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance has long been pegged as one of 2014's serious Oscar contenders. It's also looked like one weird movie.
It reaches something resembling nationwide release today meeting both of those seemingly distant expectations. It is a film that critics will love and the industry should appreciate, but also one that may be just too weird for the general public.

Birdman is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is also one of the screenplay's four credited writers. Iñárritu is one of The Three Amigos, a trio of Mexican directors, all friends, who distinguished themselves around the same time early last decade. In recent years, Iñárritu has kind of felt like the José Carreras of the group, as Alfonso Cuarón earned commercial triumph and an Oscar on Gravity and Guillermo del Toro has never lacked recognition for his distinctive brand of fantasy (from Pan's Labyrinth to Pacific Rim) and his creative contributions to everything from DreamWorks Animation to The Hobbit trilogy. By comparison, Iñárritu has been low-key of late; Birdman is his first English language film since Babel (2006) earned him Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.

This latest effort is decidedly different not only from Iñárritu's past films but just about everything we've seen in cinema so far. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who is primarily best known for his title role in three blockbuster films playing a winged superhero. The last of those was released over twenty years ago, but Riggan has little to show for this time. He's making a desperate push for relevance and legitimacy by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In "Birdman", actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is haunted by his famous film alter ego, the superhero Birdman.

About to start previews in advance of its official opening, the play is in need of a better lead actor, something Riggan finds in Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the boyfriend of his leading lady (Naomi Watts) who already knows all the lines from rehearsing with her.
The recasting is far from the end of Riggan's concerns. He's worried about finding an audience, getting a good review, his role in a potential unplanned pregnancy with a cast member (Andrea Riseborough), and keeping his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his personal assistant fresh out of rehab, on the straight and narrow. Riggan wrestles with all these things backstage and in his dressing room, where he displays some secret telekinetic powers. He hears the gruff voice of his alter ego, questioning his decisions and encouraging brilliance.

Birdman is an extraordinary exercise in cinematography and editing. Iñárritu gives the film the illusion of one long, uncut take during which the camera moves all over the place, from the streets of Broadway outside the St. James Theatre to the stage and audience to the rooftop, where Mike and Sam play Truth or Dare. You'll notice points where cuts must occur, but they are shrouded and the whole is virtually seamless. One can only imagine the challenges of staging, blocking, lighting, acting, and shooting such elaborate long takes (something rarely attempted since Hitchcock's Rope). But if you're thinking about all that, then you're probably not as invested in the story as Iñárritu hopes you will be.

It is an interesting story that explores both the allure and madness of acting for stage and screen. There's a little bit of inside baseball going on, which should only help the film's Oscar chances. As far as the moviegoing public is concerned, Birdman is probably more heady than palatable. Iñárritu knows as much and even announces as much with a show-stopping action sequence of dazzling visual effects set within Birdman's fictional universe. That scene is arresting but fleeting. There's flair beyond that and the director's persistent showmanship, with Riggan imagining himself flying around the city just like his marquee counterpart.

The fame and fortune of that role places the now washed-up actor in turmoil, longing for creative fulfillment but partly regretting that he decided against extending the franchise to a fourth film. Can the typical viewer relate to this predicament? Perhaps not. But it is worth noting that actors make up by far the largest portion of the Academy and that only those with some success are invited to join. The awards have not been shy in recent years to demonstrate an appreciation for movies about movies and actors, showing much love to the likes of The Artist, Argo, and Hugo. Birdman compares less to those crowd-pleasers than to the two meta comedies written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, particularly Adaptation, which challenged and divided moviegoers, but still picked up four major Oscar nominations and a win.

Outside the St. James Theatre, Riggan (Michael Keaton) has a chat with his substitute leading man Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).

While it isn't fair to linger on Oscar prospects in a film review, it is this topic which should keep Birdman in the public consciousness and conversation for the next four months. Without an awards season and the clout of Iñárritu, this film might not even enjoy a standard theatrical release in spite of its cast's numerous accomplishments. Those who lament movie awards as a too political popularity contest must at least find joy in the fact that this time of year brings films of substance that you can talk about and dissect.

Birdman offers plenty of that. Some parts of the movie clearly work better than others. The trippier, fanciful non-literal parts will lose some viewers, but they are certainly not random, contributing to the film's attempt to convey Riggan's cloudy state of mind. The film loses some luster when Keaton's protagonist is not on screen. We don't particularly care about Riggan's castmates, even if actors like Norton give them depth and humor. This is Keaton's show and no other actor could fill the role as perfectly as him. The movie changes very little if Riggan Thomson is renamed Michael Keaton and Birdman is called Batman.

There really is no equally powerful substitute for the sight of the balding, wrinkled, over-60 Keaton playing an actor most identified for formerly playing a masked superhero. Keaton hasn't really had a busy or glamorous career in the decades since suiting up for Tim Burton, but he hasn't lost his ample gifts for both drama and comedy. He relies on both of those to give the film the weight it craves and otherwise would lack. To do it now, after forty years in the business with nary an Oscar or Golden Globe film nomination to his name makes his the compelling narrative this season and gives him a leg up on presumed competitors like Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, and Bradley Cooper. (Bill Murray is in a similar boat as Keaton and a year older, but his movie from a first-time filmmaker is not enjoying the same buzz or long-brewing hype.) Matthew McConaughey's redemption from romantic comedy hell was the narrative that carried him through last Oscar season even in the weakest of all major contending films. Birdman will not end up as one of the year's very best films, but it and its central performance are far too interesting to ignore.

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Reviewed October 24, 2014.

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