Mark Reviews Movies

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan 

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 10/17/14 (limited); 10/24/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 23, 2014

Here is a biting dissection of people whose egos must be big enough to compensate for their soul-crushing insecurities. Then again, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the opposite in one major regard, or maybe the film is not. It's difficult to determine what co-writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's ultimate point is to this tale of a former movie star who either possesses superpowers or has deluded himself into thinking he does. It all comes down to whether or not the film believes a man can fly.

Does it? Well, no, it doesn't, and yes, it does. There's a certain level of ambivalence to the central question of its main character that is nonetheless resolved in the film's final moment—or, at least, it seems to be. The real question is: Does it matter? Again, no, it doesn't, because the film does so much with this character and its other characters before the screenplay (by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo) realigns its focus on the main character. Also, yes, it does, because the entirety of the third act and, hence, what we are meant to take away from the film are founded upon the question of—and the apparent answer to—that character's nature.

It's a riddle that is perhaps made even more confounding by Iñárritu's technique, which presents nearly the entirety of the story in one, continuous shot. This is astonishingly accomplished by Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. There are edits in the film, to be sure (a moment in darkness, a long look at a wall, or some impossible camera move), but the overall effect is so seamless that we stop looking for the possible cheats and simply accept it as the film's reality.

Of course, what is and isn't reality here is one of film's primary concerns. We see Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who was famous for playing the superhero Birdman in a series of movies from the 1990s, using telekinesis to manipulate objects when he's alone. Early in the film, he says he's responsible for a stage light falling on a terrible actor during rehearsal for a Broadway play that Riggan has adapted from a Raymond Carver short story and is directing. He's also starring, hoping the move to legitimate theater will rejuvenate his career.

Do we accept these displays of superpowers as reality? It certainly seems as if we should, but then there's a scene later in the film when Riggan imagines that a meteorite has crashed in New York City and a mechanical beast is on the attack. There's also a sequence in which he jumps from a rooftop and flies a lap around the block, only to reappear earthbound seconds later. Then there's a scene in which Riggan destroys his dressing room, lifting and hurling things with his mind but using his hands just before someone enters.

Because of the seamless approach, there is no clear distinction between apparent fantasy and reality. They are one and the same in the film's world. It's problematic, but at least it isn't so until the third act.

Before that is when the film is at its most assured. After the accident involving (or the intentional maiming of) the bad actor on the day of the first preview, Riggan lucks out when Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of his co-stars, mentions that her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a celebrated but hot-tempered actor, quit (or was fired from) his latest movie. Mike joins the cast, which also includes Laura (Andrea Riseborough), whom Riggan has been dating and who informs him that she's pregnant. Also here are Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan's daughter/assistant who recently got out of rehab, and Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan's attorney who is trying to stop the injured actor from suing the production.

It's a study of all-encompassing egos that cannot help but be at odds with each other, even as these actors try to come together to make this play work. Most of these characters believe that they are more important than they actually are and that what they do is more important than it actually is. The fascinating part is how the screenplay actively works to undermine this belief.

Mike, a Method actor, sees himself as a purveyor of Truth. What we see, though, is a self-righteous charlatan who tries to sabotage Riggan's publicity by getting on the front page of the arts section and whose acting style involves getting drunk on stage and, as Riggan puts it, changing a few lines or mumbling every so often.

Sam imagines herself the tainted product of a terrible father, but when Mike asks her about the pain of her childhood, she can only say that her father lavished her attention when he wasn't absent. The other two women here have their problems, but most of that has to do with how uncaring the men are of their experiences. The film gives us one solid scene between Lesley and Laura, in which they have to communicate the things they want to hear from their significant others to each other, and then basically dismisses them. Amy Ryan turns up as Riggan's sympathetic ex-wife in a few refreshing scenes that are free of the characters' respective dramas.

The film ultimately belongs to Riggan, who suffers repeated humiliations (learning a drunk Carver probably wrote a prized note, having to wander Times Square in his underwear after a mishap with a stage door, and getting a lambasting from Lindsay Duncan's cruel critic) while the voice of his movie alter-ego prattles in his head about the actor's failures, and Keaton, whose performance finds the right balance between longing determination and outright insanity. Of course, that focus also turns out to be a problem for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), but the film still works as a technically exciting, laser-focused comedy of dueling egos.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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