Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis
Rating: 5 out of 5 jellyfish. I may be a high rater, but I don’t give out perfect scores too often. Now, my biases for Iñárritu (Amores Perros, especially) and for Emma Stone aside, this is, to me, a perfect film. The editing (made to appear as though the film was shot in one take, no cuts) was daring and fascinating and never grew gimmicky but it was also, even more surprisingly, not the film’s only strength. Far from it, actually. The technical panache is met with and matched by amazing, raw performances from the entire, stellar cast, even as they deliver intentionally pretentious and philosophical stretches of dialogue– and this is all in service of achieving a surrealist satire about celebrity culture and the difference in value between art and entertainment. Ironic, considering this film is both art and entertainment in equal, glorious measure.

Birdman is a sometimes absurd, always engrossing tale about a show business has-been– Riggan Thomson (Keaton)– attempting to direct and star in a dramatic Broadway play of his own adaptation from a short story. The actor jargon is meant to be laughable, I think, at least when it’s coming from everyone else (in particular, Norton and Watts give great performances). But for Riggan– even with all his otherworldly abilities (which he uses mostly to throw temper tantrums and escape from his current self into delusions of his former self: the global superhero sensation, Birdman)– the struggle between artist and entertainer seems authentic, poignant almost. We may not love him every second of the film– we find out he was a pretty negligent father and a self-absorbed husband– but he is the only character who seems at least somewhat aware of what he used to be, and who he is trying to be, all with the existential dread of not really know what any of that makes him right now.

Emma Stone (again, bias aside but I couldn’t not mention this) gives a standout performance as his daughter, Sam, a recent rehab alum who’s now acting as his bitter assistant. She has one powerful, perfectly executed monologue all about how Riggan doesn’t matter anymore, how he is washed up and irrelevant, and it is one of the most gripping moments in the film. The movie seems to effortlessly, seamlessly ebb and flow between honesty and intensity, fantasy and dark humor, philosophy and spectacle. The film in itself is kind of striking a convincing balance then, a cohesive and complicated hybrid even, of the very modes it seems to argue are opposites– again, art and entertainment are assigned values that I think we’re meant to question and consider throughout the film’s content, while in the film’s form, they’re beautifully mangled together, both worthy of our attention. Everything from theater critics to Twitter and viral culture, from method acting and petty backstage power plays, is examined in equal measure; what lengths should these actors be going to to be taken seriously, and should being taken seriously be the end goal anyway? And if so, why should that be the end goal? And, as is brought up again and again throughout the film, how does any of this fit into our wired world?

The film is creative and calculated, cynical and cerebral, emotional and exciting. The jazz drumming adds to the absurdity of the film as well as to the artsy nature of it, of course, and it punctuates the film, tying together its disparate tones into one big, jazzy joke. The sound in general is extremely effective. The mixing of sound levels paired with the visual one-take effect give us the eerie feeling like the film is happening in a labyrinth around us, like we are inescapably and inexplicably immersed in this world. I loved the thrill of certain scenes, and embraced the guilt that came with feeling a thrill in those scenes– such as when Riggan is essentially in one of his old Birdman flicks again. With the snap of his fingers, there are explosions and special effects and he even flies… or does he? The messages are intentionally mixed until the film’s awe-inspiring conclusion; we’re left to wonder again and again where he’d feel most happy, most successful, most loved and admired– in his Birdman suit, making billions of dollars or on stage, making “art.” As my convoluted review probably indicates, this is a complex film that sometimes, in certain ways, masquerades as an extremely simple film– it looks like one take, but with every fluid and meaningful movement of the camera, a million questions are being raised, a million things are being considered and made fun of, and we, as media consumers, are complicit in all of it. In the end, I think the film is critiquing the conflict between art and entertainment, rather than necessarily choosing sides within that conflict. And this is what makes it so interesting to me in the first place; the film is an expertly choreographed debate, and a truly important, innovative and enjoyable film that will, above all else, remind you what the medium can do– as both art and as entertainment.

One thought on “Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  1. Great review.. I was fortunate enough to see it a few months ago with Michael Keaton & prod. Q & A afterwards.. I just called it fucking brilliant..ha! Aside from 2 diff. I didn’t think Emma Stone nor Naomi Watts stood up in this cast of incredible perf, by Keaton & Norton. beyond that we completely agree.. I did just see “the Imitation Game” about an hour ago…this movie, that, along with Whiplash and a bit behind them..Locke,, are my hands down favs of the year so far. 😀

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