Movie a Day Blog loves being poleaxed by a movie: stunned into silent and total belief in the story being told on screen. Such was my experience with BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE). 2014, Theatrical), the most audacious, creative and successful film I have seen this year. Kudos to writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for creating a modern masterpiece.
Along with INTERSTELLAR (2014, Movie a Day 11/9/14), BIRDMAN is one of the most hyped movies of the year, especially for film buffs because it’s chock-full of inside movie and theater (the Broadway variety) references and put-downs.
It actually exceeded my expectations on every level: acting, narrative, direction and especially the camerawork, for the film purports to be one continuous take (it’s not, just as Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE was not, and Aleksandr Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARK (2002) was.) The gimmick works in this case, thanks to the mastery of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the film sinously flows through its highly melodramatic story that is continually expanded by magic realism.
BIRDMAN is so much more than camera technique: it is both deeply personal and grandly symbolic of the fears and failings of the individual artist; it explores family relationships and romantic entanglements; and it shows us a man who has finally put everything on the line with a Broadway debut which he wrote, directs and stars in. Keaton’s Riggan put himself in hock for the money to mount it, too, so he’s also the producer, aided by a healthy-looking and perfectly-cast Zach Galifianakis.
This role would have confounded most actors because of the vulnerable mental state Riggan Thomas inhabits as a former superhero (the first part of the title) who passed on sequel number three and saw his career swirl slowly down the drain.
Michael Keaton so fully inhabits this character that it’s impossible not to see his own career as a fun-house mirror reflection: his starring role in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) and the diminution of his own appearances on screen over time. Both Keaton and Inarritu swear that the opposite is true, and that Keaton knew the burden he would be carrying once he read the script, but he also knew he would never get a role this good again.
When every actor in a movie is outstanding, the credit goes to the director. Inarritu’s skill with talented actors has been highly evident in his past work: AMORES PERROS (2000), 21 GRAMS (2003) and BABEL (2006), but the performances he draws from Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Galifianakis are astounding in their honesty, lack of vanity and clear commitment to the unusual path Inarritu took to his story.
Lubezki’s camera in effect acts as the film’s editor, although the way Inarritu directs it to move is half the fun of watching BIRDMAN. The other part is the delight Norton and Keaton take in dueling with each other; Norton’s character, the ultimate method actor, is uncomfortably closer to the actor’s own reputation as a terror on film sets for the writer, director and rest of the cast. He’s unbridled in his obnoxiousness, all to serve his art which in this film actually means something
This is the best work I’ve seen Emma Stone do, especially after watching her wan performance in Woody Allen’s misbegotten MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014, blog post to come). As Keaton’s resentful teenaged daughter, she’s electric with intelligence and anger and keenly aware of her potent sexuality. Noami Watts is likewise totally honest as an insecure actress and lover to Norton.
Keaton’s own romantic attachment to an actress in his play, Andrea Riseborough, is the weakest part of the story, primarily because Keaton’s internal monologue with his darker Birdman self is so compelling that it blows the other parts of his life off the screen.
His name is Rigan and his contentious movie star alter-ego sounds like Keaton’s voice run through a Devil audio filter; the little girl in THE EXORCIST was Regan and the Devil that occupied her sounded quite similar. I wouldn’t even bring it up if it weren’t for the ambitions Inarritu has beyond just detailing an actor’s best and worst day happening simultaneously.
The subtitle, THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE, is offered as an alternative to just BIRDMAN, and those are the two warring sides of Rigan’s personality: movie star vs. stage actor, superhero vs. emotional weakling, selfish actor vs. responsible father. These concerns aren’t waved in front of us with Symbolic Arrows pointing at them; they are woven beautifully into the narrative and Keaton’s evolution over the course of a few frantic days before his play’s premiere.
There’s also a tirade he directs at (presumably) the New York Times theater critic that will be remembered by every creative person who has suffered a critical scourging, particularly actors, writers and directors. Inarritu has great affection for the theater world, and he does not take a traditional jaded Hollywood view of Broadway: everyone on Rigan’s cast and crew are serious and dedicated, despite the never-ending succession of disasters that befall the production and its progenitor.
So BIRDMAN also ends up as a paean to professionalism, which we see every character violate, but which somehow ends up moving a cheering audience at the play’s conclusion. It certainly help a producer if you can fly, and Inarritu, in my estimation, uses just the right amount of magical realism to give BIRDMAN a zotz that kicks it up a notch to the top level. Too much, and you end up with WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998); too little and it doesn’t make any sense. There’s a reason Gabriel Gacia Marquez’s ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE has never been made into a film.
Somehow Inarritu unerringly finds the right mixture of all of his elements. The film was shot in only 30 days on location in New York City for the low budget of $18 million and it crackles with creative spark and hustle. It reminded me of one of the great New York showbiz movies, THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957), but without the corrosive cynicism that ate away at Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Keaton is genuine in his aspirations, his regrets and the opportunity he is determined to take. BIRDMAN brings us along for the flight, and it’s a wild, crazy, delightful ride.