October 18, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”


BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance):  Worth A Ticket – A Stunt, But An Amazing One

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s BIRDMAN is, like this year’s Boyhood, a film defined by its form.  In the case of Boyhood, that form was inextricable from its content:  its depiction of the passage of time, and the experience of growing up, had a unique impact because it was literally happening before your eyes.  Birdman‘s brilliantly executed conceit is more of a gimmick.  As the title suggests, winged, perpetual motion is of Birdman‘s essence, and Inarritu and his spectacular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, choreograph the camera with a continual flow, constantly circling the characters and roving through the sets, restlessly locating one sequence after another.  With ingenious editing (by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione) and some digital magic, the bulk of the movie appears to consist of a single uninterrupted shot that takes flight and never stops.

Flying is the movie’s reigning motif.  The most literal meaning of the title refers to the story’s protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a one-time movie star who rose to fame playing the hugely successful superhero character Birdman.  He stepped away after the third installment of the franchise, and off the face of the world as far as celebrity was concerned.  Twenty years later, people want his autograph and his photo only because of Birdman.  He’s obsessed with the alter ego too; it follows him around and in a raspy voice (here, as elsewhere, echoes of Keaton himself and his decision to leave the Batman franchise after its first 2 entries are surely intentional) encourages him to return, as it were, to the superhero blockbuster flock, while praising his (real or imagined) superhero-like power to move objects with his mind.  Instead, Riggan has doggedly committed himself to adapting, directing and starring in a Broadway version of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” an earthbound, commercially uncertain enterprise to say the least, and he’s put all his money and remaining credibility into it.

For all its visual and technical wizardry and its philosophical tropes, the basic content of Birdman is mostly an updated version of the kind of breezy backstage vehicle Kaufman & Hart wrote back in the 1930s.  It takes place during the period between the stage show’s first preview and opening, with Riggan as the (relatively) naïve playwright beleaguered by a variety of professional and personal distractions:  his nervous best friend/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), self-obsessed Method stage actor Mike (Edward Norton, doing his best work in years), Mike’s lover/co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), and the poison-pen theater critic of the NY Times Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), along with Riggan’s own ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his resentful fresh-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and his current girlfriend/co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough).  They peck away at him, alternately supportive and combative, hostile, regretful, and needy, while Riggan not-so-quietly goes mad.

The multi-ring circus of Birdman is marvelous to watch, and it holds together tautly, paced by a showy, mostly drum-based score by Antonio Sanchez.  (Between Birdman and Whiplash, movie drumming is having a very good year.)  But although the movie pokes fun at pretentiousness and solipsism, it’s guilty of both, waving around Carver the way Mike prominently holds his copy of Borges, each seeking to substantiate high-flown credentials, while peppering the dialogue with references to Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Martin Scorsese and Twitter.  It’s a bit reminiscent of post-peak Fellini, enamored of its own artifice and diving into surrealism in lieu of resolving its story.  The director co-wrote the script with Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo (the latter two also co-wrote Inarritu’s Biutiful, a darker but not totally dissimilar story of a middle-aged man  with supernatural gifts at the end of his rope), but it feels like his only real collaborator was Lubezki.  Inarritu’s previous films, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel in addition to Biutiful, didn’t suggest the heart of a clown, and he hasn’t grown much of a sense of humor since then.  The script has the structure of a farce, but it’s not particularly funny, apart from a few set-pieces, notably when Riggan is locked out of the theater’s back door and has to march through Times Square in his underpants to get back to the entrance.  The open-ended finale is self-indulgent.

Birdman is buoyed above its self-conscious obscurities by its wonderful cast, which labored through extremely lengthy takes with Lubezki’s camera constantly moving among and around them.  Keaton, amazingly, hasn’t played a real lead in a major release since the 1990s–remember Jack Frost?–and although Riggan isn’t an inspired creation as a character, he’s a giant role that lets Keaton range from tenderness to terror to explosive anger and back again, all of which he does masterfully.  Norton is inspired casting for the intense theatre actor, and he draws most of the movie’s laughs.  Stone has a stock troubled teen role, but she flavors it with energy and dark humor.  Galifianakis does some of his most restrained work, and although the script’s other women are one variety or another of nag, Ryan, Riseborough and Watts portray them beautifully.

Wide popular success may not be in the cards for Birdman, but its technical and conceptual derring-do will draw plenty of cheers among critics and art-house audiences (and possibly awards voters).  The movie isn’t as deep as it is bright; while flying high in some respects, in others it merely cruises at low altitude.  Imperfect as it may be, though, it’s a reminder that some rare birds still fly only on the big screen.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."