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USA 2014
Directed by
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
119 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Synopsis: A washed-up actor, Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), who once played an iconic movie superhero called The Birdman stages a Broadway play in a bid to assert his artistic validity but everything that could go wrong does in the lead up to its Broadway premiere.

Alejandro González Iñárritu has built his reputation with the densely-packed narrative style of Amore Perros, Babel and 21 Grams. With his latest film he shifts his approach from the horizontal to the vertical. Instead of giving us separate but contiguous stories that eventually interlock into a single whole, with Birdman he delivers a single story but one that ranges across different levels of the reality/Illusion divide with vivacity and ceaseless invention.  

Birdman is a film about staging a play with actors playing actors with all kinds of “real” (i.e. filmic) life problems and a central character who bears more than a passing resemblance to himself in real (i.e. extra-filmic) life.  Just as in this film Riggan Thomas’s career went into a nosedive after he refused to play The Birdman in a fourth instalment of a superhero franchise so in real life Michael Keaton faded from the limelight after the second Batman movie, Batman Returns, in 1992. The art-imitates-life conceit is brilliantly fleshed out (by Iñárritu and three other writers), at once pop-culturally clever and psychologically insightful, performed with zest by a terrific cast and directed with refreshing brio.

Set largely within the confines of the Broadway theatre where Riggan is simultaneously struggling with the problems of mounting his play with an lead actor who is firstly, sub-standard, then concussed after a light-fitting falls on his head, and his chaotic personal life which includes an adult daughter (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab, a girlfriend and fellow cast member (Andrea Riseborough) who announces that she’s pregnant by him. Also, he regrets his break-up with his former wife (Amy Ryan) and added to this he experiences visitations from his Birdman character of yesteryear who like an evil genii fills him with grand ideas of his superiority over the mortal fools with whom he has to deal.  Enter Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a petulant Method actor who presents a formidable deflationary counterpoint to the voice in Riggan’s head.

All this and more is combined in a madcap two hour ride through the turmoil of Riggan’s life, superbly filmed in high definition video by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar last year for shooting Gravity) whose camera, in what almost appears to be a single take (shot in sequence, there are only sixteen cuts in the entire film), weaves through narrow backstage corridors into crowded streets and swoops and soars into the Manhattan skyline all to the rhythms of Antonio Sanchez’s percussive score.

In the lead, Keaton gives what no doubt will be the performance of his career as the has-been casualty of fickle fortune, an actor driven by memories of his glory days, shallow as they were, tenaciously attempting to transcend them but tormented by fears that he will fail. Around him is a top drawer support cast. Edward Norton is delightful as the committed thespian who brandishes sword-like the kind of artistic integrity Riggan dreams of having, whilst Naomi Watts is as-ever superb as his hyper-anxious girlfriend making her Broadway debut. Zach Galifianakis also stands out as Riggan’s producer as does Emma Stone as Riggan's cynical daughter (her sobering reminder to him that his troubles don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world is one of the film’s many highlights) but really all the cast are superb in a film that is at once poignant, self-aware, and very funny.

Perhaps the somewhat irresolute ending (see below) isn't entirely effective but Birdman is a rare species of conceptually adventurous film, the likes of which we haven't seen for a  long time. Don’t miss the opportunity to see it at least once.

FYI: Iñárritu intended to end the film with the camera panning around after Riggan shoots his nose off, returning to the stage where he's doing an "Inside the Actor's Studio" style interview talking about how awesome his career has become. Then the camera would have tracked back up the stairs, into Riggan's dressing room, where Johnny Depp is pulling on a Rigganish baldcap and a Pirates of the Caribbean 5 poster siting behind him, with Jack Sparrow saying "What are we doing here, mate?".  For scheduling reasons it was not shot.




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