Bobby Reviews ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ (2014)

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[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]ctor Michael Keaton hasn’t had a starring role in a film for 6 years. With Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), he shows that not only does he still have what it takes to carry a film, but also reminds us of the fondness we have for him as a leading man. Birdman (which we’ll use in lieu of the full title for brevity’s sake), is one of those rare films in which each individual element of the composition– from the performances of the actors, to the cinematography, to the music — is executed with such masterful precision that the sum of their parts is elevated to such a level that the film will no doubt be regarded with a degree of reverence for some time to come.

Directed and written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams), Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Keaton) – a washed-up actor who was once widely known for playing the superhero Birdman in a series of big-budget action films. In an attempt to reinvent himself, Riggan sets out to produce, direct, and star in a retelling of a classic Broadway dramatic play. In the days leading up to the premier of the show, Riggan is faced with one disaster after another. Family troubles, scorned lovers, lawsuit threats, a method actor who takes himself way too seriously, and schizophrenic arguments with his disembodied Birdman character all stand in the way of Riggan and his attempt at artistic redemption.

Batma...I mean...Birdman.
Batma…I mean…Birdman.

Going into this film, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I hadn’t seen much publicity and didn’t know a whole lot about the premise other than a few short slug lines, so you could say I went into with no ounce of expectation. Birdman is the type of film that captivates you from the opening credits straight through the closing credits. Right from the start, you know you’re watching something special.

Michael Keaton is brilliant in his portrayal of Riggan Thomas, a character whose story echoes elements of Keaton’s own career (he was the original Batman, duh!). It felt like a treat to watch him in a leading role again, and one that he performs with such earnestness, humor, and intensity. The rest of the ensemble deserve equal praise, and it was nice seeing many of the actors cast in roles that are a slight departure from what audiences are used to. Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a hot-shot method actor whose intense dedication to realism is more of a curse to Riggan than the blessing the star actor was promised to be. Norton’s casting in particular was a perfect choice to make a rather unlikable character seem likable. Other standouts were Emma Stone, as Riggan’s burnout daughter Sam, and a surprisingly low-key, but impressive, Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend Jake. Rounding out the cast is Andrea Riseborough as Laura and Naomi Watts as Leslie — two actresses in Riggan’s play. Birdman also features the always endearing Amy Ryan as Sylvia, Riggan’s ex-wife.

Keaton vs. Norton: Bout of the Century
Keaton vs. Norton: Bout of the Century

Alejandro González Iñárritu proves himself to be more than capable in the director’s chair. The cinematography was nothing short of astounding. The bold choice was made to have the entire film shot as essentially one long-take with no edits. Instead, the scenes move from place to place, following the different characters as the focus shifts. The lack of edits also preserves the realness of dialogue delivery, preserving some of the conversational imperfections and rawness of the performances, which works greatly to the film’s benefit. The ambitiousness of the long-take worked particularly well in scenes where characters navigated the long, narrow corridors in the backstage areas of the theater, giving off an almost claustrophobic, yet intimate impression of the space.

Birdman uses dark comedy to explore many deep concepts such as ego, celebrity, the state of film as art, and self-worth. It’s one of those films you can’t wait to see again because you know it will have a different take-away every time. Thanks to brilliant performances, an intriguing story, and technical prowess, Birdman should be a heavy contender for Awards Season. Wildly entertaining on its surface, thought provoking at its core – Birdman is a film I would without question recommend to everyone.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is in theaters now.

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