“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bull****.”
No, this isn’t a movie about the rapper or the basketball player nicknamed as such. Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is about Riggan Thomas, a once larger-than-life movie-star whose claim to fame was starring as “The Birdman,” a superhero character in a blockbuster film franchise. Now down on his luck and considered to be washed up by most in the business, Riggan seeks what everybody in showbiz or even everyday life desires: Relevance.
Riggan decides to undergo a reinvention by going to Broadway, where he will star, write, and direct a play titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. If successful, this has the potential for people to see Tom in a whole new light, one that doesn’t involve a bird suit. As he soon finds, the Broadway acting isn’t the issue, it is dealing with the many people he comes in contact with. From his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone), to his co-stars and producer (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough), everyone is seeking something. And no matter if he surprises people with this thespian work, he may always be The Birdman whether he likes it or not.
It takes a delicate hand to to be able to say so many things in a film and still make a coherent and consistent piece. It isn’t easy to pull off, but in Birdman, it is something that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu achieves, and not just at a fringe level. Inarritu manages to make something sharp, comical, meta, and inward-looking into, but not limited to, Hollywood, Broadway, dramaturgy, and individual desire. If originality is craved, Birdman delivers.
I am sure Broadway and stage performances can be very riveting, but at this point in my young life I have no desire to see any. As the movie began, I really was unsure of whether I would enjoy or not, and by this admission it was a little of a slow start for yours truly, even a small bit of bore. And yet, this dissipated quite quickly, because Innaritu drew me in with the gorgeous cinematography. By utilizing a continuous (or at least very skilled editing) shot throughout, the characters and their situations felt so organic. There are no true scenes really, everything runs together as one complete take. so smooth and effortless, like a good actor getting into and out of character with no hitch. Spontaneous is a perfect way to describe, just like the outstanding, drum-heavy score that appears ever so often here.
Making use of this tracking technique allows a stronger, introspective look into these character’s lives. All are masters of a sociological theory known as dramaturgy, essentially how people interact with others based upon time, place, and audience. Really talented people can blur, perhaps unknowingly, what occurs in the backstage setting with what is supposed to be seen in the frontstage. Inarritu’s technique embodies this, in the sense that there often is no clear distinction when the acting ends and the real life begins for these characters.
As described earlier, nothing is left off the table here. It is just as much of a film about internal self worth as it is about the superhero genre or even love. The real treat though is the meta aspect that is present within this. Immediately, the parallels between the characters played by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton and their actual personas/career arcs in real life is abundantly clear.
Much like Riggan, Keaton once was a big star in the biz who hit peak popularity with portraying a well-known crimefighter, only to fall down a few rungs after his time in the Batmobile. Riggan’s co-star in Mike Shiner appears to be eerily similar to Edward Norton and all of his real life difficulties on set. Like Norton, Mike is extremely talented, immersing himself in his craft so much that he can be kind of a jerk in the process, fusing real life with whatever character he is portraying. For all of Birdman’s soaring surrealism, this real life allusion grounds it in a necessary and needed way.
As time goes on, this may very well be regarded as Michael Keaton’s best role. Keaton is front and center here, playing the semi-broken, dejected, but “f**k you, I will do this and at a high level” type of guy. Every emotion seems to be covered here, and then some. Was it really just this year that Keaton was in Robocop and Need for Speed? Not to be overlooked is Norton, who is so douchey, gratingly perfect, and particular as his character, while still able to give him some soul and feeling.
Honestly, everyone here comes together to deliver extremely memorable work, like Emma Stone and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s troubled daughter and former wife, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough as Mike and Riggan’s co-stars, and even Zach Galifianakis in a subdued and serious role as the producer just trying to keep it together. Everyone in this film is intriguing, which makes it disappointing that at a certain point in the runtime, many seemingly get pushed to the wayside with hardly any revisiting to their personal plights. Just some additional resolution would have been appreciated.
The journeys are still worth experiencing though, just like Birdman is. Wholly original, superbly acted, and impressively directed, it glides to pretty sizable heights. The only ignorance would be failing to check this out.
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