Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's ("Babel" and "Amores Perros") films, although frequently critically acclaimed, often get pegged as being downbeat and gloomy. So, it's a genuine surprise to many that his latest, the wondrous "Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," is such a witty, often hilarious and even moving film.

There's been a lot of talk about Michael Keaton's comeback in the movie as Riggan Thompson, a washed up Hollywood star known mostly for his role as the film's titular superhero who is staging a resurgence by putting on a theatrical production of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway. And, for sure, the role is Keaton's juiciest in some time. As Riggan, he is able to dig into a character who is equally flawed, poignant, goofy and, at times, borderline delirious. And Inarritu complements his character's moments of frustration and anguish with magical realist flights of fancy that would have made Gabriel Garcia Marquez proud.

But although Keaton is great in the movie, there's enough praise to go around for the entire cast, which includes a very solid Naomi Watts as a Broadway first timer, Emma Stone in her best performance to date as Riggan's ex-drug addict daughter who also works as her father's assistant, a very restrained Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's manager and friend and Amy Ryan as the former star's ex-wife.

Edward Norton nearly steals the show as Mike Shiner, the prima donna Broadway star whom Riggan calls in at the last moment to act in the play after a colleague is seriously injured by a falling stage light. Norton's always been a fine actor, but who knew how funny he could be? Shiner is a handful, trashing the stage's props during a preview show and then later taking a sex scene a little too far with a fellow actor.

One of the elements of the film that has drawn much attention is the way that Inarritu makes it appear as if the entire movie were one continuous shot. Obviously, it's not and the filmmaker employs some techniques similar to those of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope." But the picture always feels as if it is in motion, following one character down a hallway, only to take up with another heading a different direction. Rather than feeling gimmicky, the technique creates the tension involved in a Broadway production's final hours before it is unveiled to the public.

Another aspect of "Birdman" that makes it unique is how it plays upon its actors' real lives to comment on their characters in the film. Keaton, as we all know, shot to fame playing a superhero and Inarritu's film is a comeback for him, much as the Carver play is for Riggan. And Norton has been known - on occasion - to be a high strung collaborator, although I'd be willing to bet his obnoxious Shiner is exaggerated for the sake of hilarity.

"Birdman" is, of course, also about the artistic process and the film's final frames struck a similar note to the finale of Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," although Inarritu's picture ends on a more hopeful - rather than bleak - note. This has been a year for great final shots - "Boyhood," "Under the Skin" and "The Immigrant" come to mind - and "Birdman" has a pretty terrific one as well.

This is a thematically rich and extremely entertaining film with some pointed commentary on the process of making art as well as the modern methods of making it accessible to the public. Everything from YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to smart phones and comic book movies come under fire. This is one of the year's best.

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