Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Dir: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Angela Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan
Run-Time: 119 Mins
The first wholly English-language feature from Alejandro G. Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) is an ambitious blend of showbiz commentary, family saga, behind-the-scenes drama and superhero movie – complete with some impressive effects.
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood star best known for a series of superhero movies some twenty years previously (I wonder how they chose Keaton for that role…) who has invested much both financially and emotionally in directing, starring in and adapting Raymond Carver’s short-story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for Broadway. For Riggan this is more than a play, he needs to reignite a stalling career and gain credibility.
The play hits numerous mishaps along the way. One of the co-stars is injured and replaced at the last minute by Michael Shiner (Norton) a narcissistic method-acting critical darling (I wonder how they chose Norton for that role…) Thomson and Shiner clash egos, and come to blows when Shiner attracts much of the press Thomson hoped would come his way to relaunch his failing career. Elsewhere Thomson contends with building a relationship with his fresh out of rehab daughter (Stone), a potentially pregnant by him co-star (Riseborough), a snobbish but influential theatre critic (Duncan) ready to crucify him – HIM a spoiled Hollywood brat – for wanting to make serious art; and every preview performance endures some sort of mishap. All the while he is haunted by the voice of the character that made him a star, The Birdman (Keaton in a Falcoln-esque costume and doing his best Bale-Batman voice), at times driving and motivating Thomson to the point of believing he still has the full range of Birdman’s powers.
While these dramas play out the steady-cam follows, roving in and out of dressing rooms, following one star or another down corridors, onto stage, out into Times Square, into this venue or that giving the impression that Birdman is one long, whole single take. Coupled with a drum heavy soundtrack that rises and falls near constantly throughout the effect places the audience inside the frenetic, fractured mind of Thomson. While such techniques deny the audience that moments rest that a cut provides and the soundtrack is too intrusive at times, they do give Birdman a unique and dizzying style and tempo.
As impressive as the editing of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione is to seamlessly achieve this (not to mention how much meticulous planning must have been done to make the flow of Birdman feel so effortless), cuts could be made elsewhere: some scenes go on longer than they should, staying to hammer home a point which has already been made and Birdman is still going on ten minutes after it should have ended.
Keaton gives the kind of comeback performance Thomson dreams of and an Oscar nomination is surely in the bag. Norton is in danger of stealing every scene his is in, showcasing impeccable comedy timing and displaying a bravado that hides a cracked interior. Galifianakis impresses too, toning back from his usual comedy performance to deliver a leaner, straighter and still funny turn as Thomson’s lawyer and producer.
The Verdict: Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a little pretentious and has an editing style and soundtrack that could alienate some viewers. However, two very strong performances at the top and a sharp, often laugh-out loud script make this a successful satire on modern showbiz, pop-culture and the cult of celebrity; with underlying messages about creativity, family and finding your own place in the world.