Film Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a kinetic farce of the celebrity psyche anchored by some great performances and an incredible technical presentation.

Following the run up to the Broadway debut of ex-superhero actor Riggan Thomson (who is starring, writing and directing the production of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), Birdman focuses mostly on the behind the scenes drama of the production and the many big personalities behind it. As egos clash and the preview process churns towards opening night the personal stakes run higher for Riggan and his mental stability goes with it.

Birdman is a black comedy at its heart and it has a lot of fun at the expense of the perception and realities of an actor’s pain and ego. At the center of all this is Michael Keaton as Riggan and he delivers a performance on par with just about anyone else on screen this year. Riggan allows Keaton to play on an emotional roller coaster as he deals with lovers, ex-lovers, daughters, unruly co-stars and overbearing agents. Keaton plays Riggan as a raw nerve and he gets a ton of opportunities to bounce off just as many big and over the top personalities. Edward Norton, as Riggan’s co-star Mike Shiner, goes toe to toe with Keaton on a number of occasions in Birdman and the two have some of the best chemistry I have seen this year. The two are electric when they are on screen together, with their first one in particular really being one of my favorite this year. It is just great to see Norton being funny again, something he doesn’t do enough. Norton also comes closest to matching Keaton for best performance in the film, but the film loses sight of Shiner in the third act as Riggan plows towards the finish.

Keaton and Norton get the most fun roles in the film, but the large ensemble is full of plenty of other great parts and performances. Andrea Riseborough is delightfully weird as Riggan’s co-star/lover, and Naomi Watts is a lot of fun as well as the fourth member of the cast, but both women seem a bit underserved when it is all said and done. Emma Stone also continues to do great work every time out, but like her female co-stars she does great work in a bit thin a role. Amy Ryan actually resonates the most out of any of the women in the film, even though her character might be the thinnest in the film. She and Keaton have such a wonderful and lived in chemistry, their couple of brief scenes together resonated as much as anything else in the film. Zach Galifianakis rounds out the lead ensemble and it is great to see him be funny without having to be forced into his man-child character that Hollywood seems to only want to let him play.

The cast and performances are a big reason to see the film, but Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction is just as big a reason to not miss Birdman. Working with everyone’s favorite cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu has slickly assembled the film to seem like one long uninterrupted take, with the majority of the shots assembled consisting of impressively long takes on their own. It makes the performances that much more impressive, but at the same time, the lack of a cut never allows you to escape the film’s forward momentum. Now, I don’t think Iñárritu means for you to think that the film is really one uncut take, he deliberately takes us through impossible shots on multiple occasions, but the lack of a cut is the real effect he is looking for. Even still, the film couldn’t have been made up by that many shots regardless, meaning that even if they cheated on the whole single take film thing, it is still consisted of excellent steadicam shots of impressive lengths one after another.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is full of great performances, great camerawork and some great dark humor. What I’m saying is the film is pretty great. The film is a dark comedic farce that isn’t afraid to make fun of anyone, but beyond any of that the film is a visceral thrill ride into the degrading psyche. Sounds fun, right?

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