Review – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

It’s a testament to how masterful of a filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu is when you consider that the same director who gave us draining and life-affirming dramatic fare such as Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful can then turn around and deliver one of the funniest movies of the year, but still with the dramatic weight of his previous films.

The plot follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up actor who was famous 20 years ago for playing a superhero named Birdman, as he tries to mount a comeback on his own Broadway show –  all the while dealing with his unhinged mental state, his difficult cast and reclaiming his relationship with his daughter.

It’s completely obvious the meta-textual reasoning for casting Michael Keaton in this role given his history in the cape, but thankfully he isn’t just around for a punchline in this. Many will dub this the grand return of Michael Keaton, and they’re mostly right. Michael Keaton has been silently killing it for years now, with a deliriously fun turn in The Other Guys, the spot on voicing of Ken in Toy Story 3, and while you can say whatever you want about Robocop and Need for Speed, but there was a joy in watching Keaton slime it up for those films. Still though, it’s undeniable this is the best role he’s had in years, and he runs with it all the way to the finish line. He runs the full spectrum of emotion, as Riggan goes from top to bottom and back again repeatedly. There’s a base level of frustration in every scene he has, and watching Keaton carry the weight of it all while battling himself really shows the range of his capabilities.

The ensemble surrounding Keaton is one of the finest you’ll see this year. Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough all bring an authenticity to roles fairly stereotyped as the lead actress, his ex-wife and and supporting actress/sorta-girlfriend. Zach Galifianakis has a tender and honest chemistry with Keaton as his best friend and lawyer. Emma Stone gives a charismatic and honestly raw performance as Sam, Riggan’s daughter, fresh out of rehab and whose relationship with Riggan is a forced one. One of the friends I saw the film with encapsulated Edward Norton’s performance well by remarking that he was the MVP of the film. When he first appears as Mike Shiner, a last-minute replacement for a cast member, you get the impression that he’s playing a type of character we’ve all seen before – a self-serious over-committed actor. But as the film goes on, Norton begins to break down those stereotypes and reveal a man almost as damaged and desolate as Riggan. The dynamic between him and Riggan begins as borderline antagonistic, but a mutual and professional respect bleed through when they interact.

As a film critic my knee-jerk reaction is to take offense to the portrayal of the critic (Lindsey Duncan) as a prick for prick’s sake. But at the same time Riggan Thomson says a lot of truth in his rant to her – it’s a strong moment of self-clarification for him as he reveals that he’s putting his entire life on the line for this show. As much as I hate seeing one-note villainous critics on screen, I can appreciate that this one actually served a purpose.

By now you’ve probably heard that 98-99% of the film is edited to look like one take. It is as spectacular to witness as it sounds. It’s never treated as a gimmick, but utilized to heighten the manic intensity of Riggan’s mindset and keep the audience constantly with these characters. Emmanuel Lubezki is without a doubt one of the greatest and most innovative cinematographers to ever live, and he continues to show that here. There are moments where you figure “that’s where they made the cut”, but to his credit you’re never quite sure.

Some have described the film as an anti-superhero film, and that’s valid. I’ve been experiencing severe superhero fatigue lately, and Iñárritu has heard my cries. He makes skilled critiques of the greed and hammered formulas within the superhero genre. At certain points he straight up calls out names, and you’d think him insensitive if he wasn’t also right. With this film, with 1/6 the budget of your average superhero film, Iñárritu crafts a film with far more wonder, skill and spectacle than anything Hollywood can throw money at.

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