Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Movie Review #942

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Limited release on October 17, 2014. Nationwide release on November 14, 2014. Comedy/Drama. This film is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence. Runs 119 minutes. An American-Canadian production. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu & Nicolás Giacobone & Alexander Dinelaris Jr. & Armando Bo. Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Merritt Wever, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan, and Lindsay Duncan.

PROFOUND, HYSTERICAL, SURREAL SHOWBIZ SATIRE. IT BLEW ME AWAY.

★★★★
By Alexander Diminiano

I can’t get over what an incredible this was. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is incredible in ways you’ve never seen. It’s Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s first comedy, and at that, it’s a profound, hysterical, surreal showbiz satire.

Michael Keaton has never done better than he does in “Birdman”. He delivers stupendously in the role of a split-personality character, resembling a celebrity’s internal struggle to choose his own path in the entertainment business, when haunted by a pressuring, suppressed desire for fame. The psychological drama here is dark and brilliant, largely due to Keaton’s performance. He plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who became famous quite some time ago when he starred in a trilogy about a superhero named Birdman. His fans want a fourth film, but he’s been refusing for the last twenty years. In fact, he’s now turned to a career as an actor and director for the stage. Except he’s not thinking along the lines of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. He’s actually adapting a melodrama based on the short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” by Raymond Carver. (We are told that Riggan chose to become an actor because of a note Carver once wrote to him on a cocktail napkin.)

It’s not the pressure from fans, though, that drives Riggan crazy. It’s the voice of Birdman, a figment of his imagination who appears to Riggan constantly, tempting him to believe that he belongs in the action movies that made him famous, not a stage drama that nobody will give a damn about.

It’s not just Keaton that gives a tour de force performance here. The whole cast seems to deliver the script perfectly. Emma Stone delivers a pretty effective performance as Riggan’s pothead daughter. The role isn’t like anything she’s done before, so you don’t expect much of it. In retrospect, though, she should be playing this sort of wildly imperfect character all the time. Edward Norton delivers as the star Riggan’s play. His offstage coupling with the much-younger Stone turns out to be surprisingly believable. Singularly, he’s the most impulsive character in this story, and perhaps because of that, the funniest.

“Birdman” is a movie unlike any other I’ve ever seen. It makes sense, and yet it doesn’t, and I suppose this was Iñárritu’s brilliant intention. Its atmosphere demonstrates a level of surrealism that some of the history’s most daring artists wouldn’t think to achieve. The cinematography delivers an illusion that the story is being told from the viewpoint of an observer, perhaps a paparazzi. The camera is in constant motion, or so it seems, until a climactic moment during the final third of the film. The score works as a complement to that. It’s heavy, chaotic, often mindless drum music, but in an utterly brilliant fashion. The aesthetics here are as creative as the satire itself. A screenwriter might sit in the theater and wonders, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Anyone else who sits in the theater would just rock along with the movie for a whole, fleeting two hours.

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