Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) review
In director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (Babel, 21 Grams) newest film, audiences have seen something they never thought they’d never see in the director’s oeuvre—a big budget action scene with machine gun helicopters, large, fiery explosions, an enormous, CGI- laden robot, and a superhero. Granted, this spectacle occurs quickly in a fantasy sequence during a film that seemingly indicts blockbuster pageantry. Despite having a blockbuster title with Birdman and boasting a noteworthy cast of stars, the film is anything but a big budget popcorn fest. Instead, Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) focuses on a former blockbuster actor’s many struggles and how they relate within his core group of associates as he prepares to direct and star in a Broadway play he has adapted from the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Iñárritu’s work always finds itself as a major contender come awards season, and Birdman will be no different except that the film takes a few scathing shots at awards (and reviews for that matter).
The most obvious statement Birdman makes is casting Michael Keaton (RoboCop, Need for Speed) as a movie star who used to play a super hero whose name started with a “B” and ended with “man.” Keaton was considered a largely comedic actor until Tim Burton cast him as Bruce Wayne / Batman for the original 1989 Batman picture. After becoming an international star twice-playing perhaps the most popular comic book character ever drawn, Keaton turned down a rumored $25 million and left the second Batman sequel over creative differences as Warner Bros. sought to suck the darkness out of the beloved character. As time (and critics) would tell, Keaton had the same opinion as audiences of the iconic hero. As the Batman franchise slowly crumbled, Keaton disappeared from blockbusters and the public eye in general. He tried his full range of acting—television, indie films, voice work, comedies, Shakespeare, video games. It wasn’t until 2014 (ironically the same year Birdman came out) that he returned to blockbusters—a double dip, no less, with a video game adaptation and a remake.
While he won’t win a statue for his performances in RoboCop or Need For Speed, it will be rather difficult for other leading men to top Michael Keaton’s performance as Riggan Thomson this awards season. There’s nothing fake in his performance. Keaton gets real and fearlessly puts himself out there for all to see. Riggan has recently turned down a third Birdman sequel in an effort to get people in general to take him seriously as an actor—or is that just what it seems like on the surface? Despite a few similarities with Riggan, this is still just a performance from Keaton. Keaton has comfortably made a name for himself as a talented actor outside of Batman, despite the fact that the role haunts his career like Birdman haunts his thespian. Audiences won’t separate the actor from the role, labeling him as “Birdman” and refusing to see him for nothing else. A newspaper critic labels him as a “movie star” and refuses to give him a chance in a different venue. People perpetually label Riggan which leads to an existential crisis that thankfully never hit Keaton in real life. Plus, there have been no reports of the actor transcending the metaphysical like his character.
While Keaton reveals a level of performing he never has before on screen, he couldn’t have done it without a cast of tremendous supporting players. Edward Norton’s (The Incredible Hulk, The Grand Budapest Hotel) performance as selfish, intense, method actor Mike will likely land him a supporting actor nomination for a multitude of award ceremonies. Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Magic in the Moonlight) may land her first Oscar nomination as Riggan’s troubled, neglected daughter, Sam. Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, Part III, The Campaign) becomes a parody of all producers while Naomi Watts plays an up-and-coming actress who just wants to “make it.”
The most interesting aspect of Birdman is not that Iñárritu never really confirms or denies whether Riggan has mind powers—that’s just to satisfy critics who would balk if the director ever confirmed that Riggan had powers. Plus, the film would become a science-fiction narrative and the message would completely change. The entire film ties to Riggan and his actions even when he’s not on screen. What makes Birdman a compelling classic is Iñárritu’s ability to blur the lines of reality on every level: the actor (Keaton) and the role (Thomson) often remind us that they could have been one and the same if Keaton made different choices in his career. Birdman isn’t necessarily about Michael Keaton specifically, but an actor’s plight in general. Has Riggan balanced studio films with indie films and stage enough over the course of his career? If so, how much has it hurt his popularity and reputation in the entertainment community? Riggan struggles with these thoughts throughout—but he can’t quite grasp that the problem is the fact that he cares at all how everybody labels him.
Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) will surely make a major splash at the 2015 Academy Awards, Golden Globes, SAGs, etc. Iñárritu’s moving camera and brilliant filmmaking shines through once again as he’ll potentially direct several award-winning performances. Michael Keaton creates a character that should be hard to root for throughout the film, and still lends Riggan a measure of humanity and a lot of emotion. If it doesn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars, Birdman will be only close behind.