Directed By: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Trivia: Michael Keaton and the rest of the cast had to adapt to Alejandro González Iñárritu's rigorous shooting style, which required them to perform up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time while hitting precisely choreographed marks
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a perfect storm of creativity, a film that fires on all cylinders (execution, performance, and story) to create a work of art that’s positively stunning.
It’s been years since actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) played Birdman, the popular comic book hero whose exploits were featured in several blockbuster films. Since that time, his career has stalled, and in an attempt to get it rolling again, he’s written a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”, which is set to debut on Broadway in a few days’ time. Alas, things are not going well for either Riggan or his play (which he’s also starring in and directing). For one, his supporting actor (who, truth be told, wasn’t all that good) was hit in the head by a falling light during rehearsals. For a moment or two, this tragedy seemed to have a happy outcome when co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) announces her boyfriend is Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), one of Broadway’s hottest stars, and that he may be interested in taking the part. After refinancing his house to meet Shiner’s salary demands, Riggan is horrified to learn his new co-star is a prima donna whose method acting ruins one of the play’s all-important previews. On top of this, Riggan’s attempt to reconnect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who’s working as his personal assistant, isn’t going as he’d hoped it would (in a moment of anger, she tells Riggan, in no uncertain terms, that both he and his play are a joke). Worst of all is the possibility that Riggan is losing his mind; he’s hounded constantly by his alter-ego, Birdman, who’s trying to convince the aging actor to once again don the costume and appear in another film. Riggan’s best friend and business partner, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), tells him everything will be OK, but as opening night approaches, Riggan Thomson is convinced that both his career and his life are about to come crashing down around him.
As designed by Iñárritu, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), looks as if the entire film was shot in a single take. While this isn’t the case (special effects were utilized to achieve what appeared to be a seamless flow), the director did subject his cast and crew to a series of very long takes, during which the camera roams freely around the playhouse, following one character after another as they prepare for the show's upcoming debut. Aside from giving the movie a “real-time” vibe, this method also enhanced the various performances, introducing a level of tension that served the story perfectly (a flubbed line or miscue by any actor meant an entire scene, some of which stretch for minutes on-end, would have to be re-shot). The supporting cast is extraordinary; Edward Norton delivers what I consider to be one of his best performances as the egotistical Mike, an actor willing to give everything he’s got to achieve realism on the stage (while performing a bedroom scene, Mike suggests that he and Lesley actually have sex, which leads to one of the film’s funniest visual gags). Also excellent is Emma Stone, taking what could’ve been a cliché character (the troubled daughter angry with her absentee father) and bringing her convincingly to life.
As for the lead, Michael Keaton is near flawless as Riggan, a man pushed to his limits as he tries to salvage what’s left of his dignity. The parallels with the actor’s own past are hard to ignore (Keaton played the title character in Batman and Batman Returns, only to struggle after hanging the cape up), and I’m sure this worked to his advantage, but the depths he takes this character to (Riggan’s conversations with the Birdman are troubling, to say the least), coupled with his confidence in some of the picture’s lighter moments (like the scene where Riggan is locked out of the theater during a preview performance, forcing him to dart through the crowded streets in his underwear), show that Keaton dug considerably deeper for the role, relying on more than real-life experience to give his character the intensity needed to carry the film on his shoulders.
There are some strong contenders in this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees, with a number of films poised to compete with Birdman for Oscar’s highest honors; if I were a betting man, I’d lay money that Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, will beat out Keaton for Best Actor, while J.K. Simmons, so good in Whiplash, will trump Norton’s bid in the Supporting Actor category. And I’ll be shocked if Linklater’s Boyhood doesn’t capture the top prize as the year’s Best Picture. But regardless of whether or not it’s a big winner at this Sunday’s Oscar ceremony (Iñárritu could walk away with Best Director, and either this movie or The Grand Budapest Hotel will win for original screenplay), Birdman is a remarkable achievement, one I believe will stand the test the time.
Years from now, people will still be talking about Birdman, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if it shows up on a few “Best of the Decade” lists in 2019. It truly is that good.