Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a remarkably clever piece of filmmaking that is a tribute to and an exorcism of the creative spirit.
Bird’s Eye View
R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
It’s a blast to watch. Without even getting into the great casting and witty dialogue, there’s big fun in simply watching how director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Babel) has staged this movie miracle. He goes for incredibly long sequences of non-stop camera movement, dialogue and cast members moving in and out of the picture; it’s not the typical cutting from one camera angle to another, or worrying about multiple cameras being set up to provide coverage of the various cast members from numerous angles.
No. Heck no.
This is about meticulously staging very complex sequences, with the camera following actors down hallways, in and out of rooms and on and off the film’s centerpiece, the stage of the St. James theatre on Broadway, all while also incorporating some pretty impressive practical effects. Those shots feel like one seamless piece of extended filming thanks to some (clever) cuts in the dark, much like Hitchcock pioneered way back in 1948, when he made the 80-minute Rope with only 10 carefully-choreographed shots. It’s a dramatic twist toward the end that finally breaks that incredible streak and traditional editing returns to the fore.
That technique is in and of itself one whole level of cleverness.
Birdman of Broadway
The story is about an actor looking to reassert his creative energy 20 years after his heyday as the star in a series of superhero movies, the blockbuster Birdman trilogy. That actor is Riggan Thomson, played oh so exceptionally by Michael Keaton, who, yeah, played Batman twice some 20+ years ago. Riggan has a taste for the theatrical and his semi-egotistical dream is to stage the very real poet Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by writing, directing and starring in the adaptation.
And that’s another clever level. A movie filmed like a play about a (former) movie star looking to rekindle the creative fire by pouring his soul into a stage play — and therein coming to terms with the dramatic similarities between film and stage along with all those inner demons that simply want to be loved.
There’s a lot on this movie’s — and Innaritu’s — mind. The movie begins with a title card of Carver’s epitaph (he died in 1988): “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
It’s the kind of dizzying experience that rarely happens these days. It’s a fun movie to watch unfold with its ridiculously ambitious staging, but it’s also heavy duty in terms of themes and ideas.
Ultimately, it’s about the inner madness that drives some people to bare all — emotionally and ideologically — while suffering through the general public’s oftentimes base, pedestrian and uninformed opinions so readily and frequently thrown their way. It’s about the differences between art and pop. It’s about the sacrifices of one life in order to make another life happen. And it’s about that subtitle. Much like this movie itself, Riggan’s undertaking is one of blind ambition and the blissful ignorance of not knowing how hard it really will be to get it done.
And it all culminates in an ending that is wide open for interpretation. It’s not quite a mattsterpiece. (Argh. Sorry. Slip of the keyboard. It’s not quite a masterpiece.) But it’s got so many creative thoughts about creativity, and it so definitely warrants a second viewing, it most certainly seems destined to be an oft-referenced movie, much like This Is Spinal Tap, Brazil and other singularly definitive pieces of work.
Wow. All of those words put in service to describe this creative rush, with nary a mention of the spectacular cast surrounding Keaton.
Well, isn’t that awkward? Pardon the appearance of an oversight. For this writer, movies exploding with ideas and thoughts are oftentimes every bit as exciting — if not more so — than movies driven by things that go “boom!”
There’s Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) as Riggan’s daughter, decked out in tattoos, torn stockings and a conspicuous bandage on her knee. Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk) is a self-absorbed jerk of an actor whose popularity drives the play’s box office, but he’s got loads of issues. He’s more “real” onstage than off.
Throw in Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion), Zach Galifianakis (G-Force) and Naomi Watts (King Kong) shining in supporting roles and... Yeah. It’ll have to be seen again.