“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” isn’t about an artist’s descent into madness. Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is already there. But as he struggles with his sanity, his comeback, and the maniacal denizens of Broadway, director Alejandro González Iñárritu surrounds his story with witty jabs at the industry and a varied array of amusingly bleak scenarios. The heavily dialogued encounters are a true actors’ dream, and here not a single performance falters. Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, and many more ably prove that their range extends well beyond comic book superheroes (coincidentally, the aforementioned players have starred in such projects).
While the exchanges are exceedingly meaty in both drama and humor, the content occasionally slips from shrewd satire to repetitious filler. But it’s not long before the next misadventure starts and a breakneck speed is fashioned through the percussive soundtrack and the manipulation of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s long takes. With its endlessly bizarre cast of characters, hilariously thought-provoking banter, and an ambiguous grasp on reality, “Birdman” will leave the audience with a raised eyebrow opposite a perpetual grin – and an insightful look into the tumultuous world of theater.
Once renowned for his big-budget Birdman films, washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, in perhaps the best performance of his career) attempts to regain his former glory by writing and acting in a Broadway play. But as opening night draws steadily closer, the problems begin piling up. His rebellious daughter Sam (Emma Stone) continues turning to illegal drugs for relief, an actress he’s involved with (Andrea Riseborough) claims to be pregnant, a vicious theater critic threatens of a scathing review, his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) returns, and replacement actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) steals the spotlight while throwing regular tantrums onstage. But if he can quell the voices in his head and make it through the week, he might just reconnect with his family and find himself in the process.
Like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” to which “Birdman” draws several parallels (including the misperception and self-delusions of a man caught up in his past), there’s a surreal, hallucinogenic quality to many of the actions; something very un-movie-like is afoot, and that sense is derived partly from the eavesdropping, documentary style narrative. Music that originates from within the context of the film and intrusive close-ups supplement the more obvious cinematographic use of a faked never-ending tracking shot. The technique is rarely attempted and always memorable; here, it’s also uncommonly executed with precision and cleanliness. But as with many films that balance extreme style with its substance, the gimmick tends to interfere more than it embellishes.
If viewers can get past the distraction of the one-take simulation, there’s a clever, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny insider look at Broadway theater folk. They frequently disagree (especially as seen through the eyes of a scathing reviewer) with the methods of their Hollywood counterparts, sacrificing and toiling ceaselessly all for the sake of art rather than money, and the memorization and delivery of lines can’t be chopped and edited for the final product. Live enactments are wholly susceptible to unfixable mistakes. In part an informed satire, the script also stabs at the press (with their idiotic focus on rumors), publicity stunts, the rehearsal process, the eccentricity of actors, and the drugs and booze that cinematically go hand in hand with performers.
The ideas of celebrity and adoration clash with recognition and relevance, always shedding light on Riggan’s increasingly existential visualizations and the literally transformative enlightenment of the conclusion (transformative not only in reference to the Birdman costume but also to eventual disfigurement that reflects “The Phantom of the Opera” advertising across from the St. James Theatre shooting location). And it’s an ending sure to summon inquiries, as it seems to say that his daughter has finally acknowledged him for the larger-than-life, accomplished, and genuinely special person (symbolically, a superhero) he always wanted her to see him as. Or, that he has the power of flight. Or, that they’re all insane. Like many films that clearly want the audience to disperse with multiple interpretations, “Birdman” is purposefully cryptic about some of its more layered, dramatic sequences, making this take on the tortured souls of artists something of a comedy version of “Black Swan.”
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)