Birdman (aka The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The premise of Birdman will immediately be noted for its meta casting of the lead. Michael Keaton (who previously played Batman) plays Riggan Thompson, a washed up actor who was once the star of a superhero epic, Birdman. With those days behind him, Riggan attempts to helm his very own stage production of the novel What We Mean When We Talk About Love. But the Birdman persona never leaves Riggan’s presence, influencing his image and his mental state. On it’s surface, the story appears as a sound idea for a comedy in the vein of A Mighty Wind. But I was very surprised to find this picture to be more of a roller coaster character study on an egotistical actor and the despicable people who surround him.
When Riggan isn’t running around the theater trying to prevent his play from turning into a disaster, he’s in his dressing room wrestling with the voice of Birdman knocking him down. The gravely voice stuck in his head keeps telling him that he’ll only fade out into obscurity and that this play is a waste of time and money. The rest of the people who surround the production do not help him either. His lawyer (Zach Galifanakis) manipulates the actor into going along with the play to prevent the loss of money over Riggan’s sanity. His daughter (Emma Stone) reaffirms his pathetic life as both an aged actor and a terrible father. His lead talent for the play (Edward Norton) looks down on him as a celebrity who does not belong on the stage. And the local theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who Riggan might have believed would be the one person who will judge him solely on his work, informs him ahead of time that she’ll strike him down in her review before the play even begins. Everyone is against him including his own inner voices.
And yet Birdman is still a comedy in an off-beat sense of one man coming to terms with mortality in the twilight of his acting career. It’s an amusing train-wreck of how everything behind the scenes goes awry from short-fused actors to wardrobe malfunctions. While those gags work, the film is at its best when it’s functioning on Riggan's personality and psychological state. He is an infinitely interesting character in how he perceives himself and interacts with others. Around his fans, he smiles and signs autographs. Around his family, he stammers and grows overly emotional. Around his crew, he explodes with frustration and rage both quiet and untamed. All of the accumulated pressures amount to a wounded man losing far more control than he realizes. Meanwhile, Birdman flexes his feathers in the background, reminding Riggan of a place where he could make millions and always be welcomed.
The mind battles Riggan has with Birdman are certainly one of the highlights of the film with Michael Keaton fighting against himself. He imagines that he has psychic powers, using his mind to move objects and trash his dressing room. At one point Riggan is given a shining vision of what he left behind; a world of epic explosions and computer-generated bad guys that was his license to print millions of dollars. Naturally, going for a theater career, he wanted to leave all that behind. But realizing that this was his legacy brings some minor reassurance to his project that appears doomed to fail from all sides.
Birdman was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who chose a unique, almost freestyle way of shooting this story. The entire film appears as one long shot with the camera bobbing and weaving between dressing rooms, the stage, the catwalks, the roof, the alleyways and even the nearby bar. When the camera isn’t taking us on the journey, it’s as close as it can possibly get to the actors booming at each other. There are also several quiet moments of transition as when the camera leads us up into the empty backstage hallways, listening to the distant sound of the audience applauding the end of a scene. We know in a few minutes Riggan will be headed through the halls to his dressing room and we’re given a brief breath before being let back into his tense world. There are also some nice little touches throughout as when the jazz drummer conducting the soundtrack is randomly seen in natural spots like city streets and unnatural locations like the theater break room.
Whenever Riggan looks in the dressing room mirror, the one thing that catches our eyes the most is a taped quote that reads “a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” It applies to the general theme of the characters, but I believe it also applies to the ambiguous ending. No matter how others may attempt to rationalize or explain away the reasoning, it doesn’t change what is actually up on screen. What Birdman leaves on screen is an unforgettable and intellectually challenging experience in a one-of-a-kind character study. Featuring a cast you can’t take your eyes off of with cinematography that makes you regret blinking, this is one of the smartest comedies of the year that digs its talons in and never lets go.