Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Posted by Joel Copling on October 29, 2014

There is the whiff of satire at the corner of every frame in "Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)." It's in the treatment of its protagonist's previous career, which mirrors in more ways than one that of the actor playing the role. It's in the treatment of the figureheads surrounding this clearly damaged protagonist--each ego an extension upon his own. And it's in the screenplay's treatment of criticism, particularly the venom it aims toward this type of journalism. The concoction is acidic and pointed enough that co-writer/director Alejandro G. Inarritu and his fellow screenwriters (Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo) don't sink the project, but there is a smugness that is hard to escape.

Years ago, Riggan Thomson made his career synonymous with the ultra-popular "Birdman" superhero franchise, but his career plummeted when he turned out the third sequel to the series (Riggan is played a masterful Michael Keaton, so if you don't get the joke yet, just wait until the reference to how much Riggan loathes the like of a certain, other actor who filled the Caped Crusader's cowl). He now hopes to revitalize his career with an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," which he has written and plans to direct and in which he will star. The only problems facing him: a terrible lead who has been sent to the hospital after a stage incident and replaced by the self-righteous Mike (Edward Norton), a pregnant flame and co-star by the name of Laura (Andrea Riseborough), a nervous lead actress named Lesley (an excellent Naomi Watts), and a daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who resents Riggan for his failed marriage to Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and has recently ended a stint in rehab.

The most vital aspect of this production is the way in which it has been filmed; Inarritu's camera, with assistance from the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, zigs and zags through the proceedings, giving the illusion that roughly 95% of the movie is a single take. It's a masterful creative decision, even if the scope of the film itself lends a certain claustrophobia that doesn't really fit (A long consideration of a hallway is the film's way of catching its breath, and it needs more of that). There are also some supporting characters with whom to contend: Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is Riggan's manager and doesn't have much to do, Sylvia is merely there for some familial drama that doesn't really go anywhere, and Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) is the hateful critic who vows to kill Riggan's play (Seeing it is merely something she will do; consideration for it is lowest on her list of priorities) and reputation (as she hates everything for which celebrities, like him, stand).

But "Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" works, in large part because of the willingness of the actors to embrace the satire on display. It's unfortunate, really, that it couldn't be as laser-focused on these elements as it is on Riggan's place in it. Keaton is exceptional, both as the troubled Riggan himself and in his voice work as the hallucinatory voice and figure of the actor's old counterpart Birdman, who hovers behind Riggan when he isn't whispering cynical statements and paranoid delusions into his head. It's the treatment of popular culture as a thing to resent (Early scenes have a particular grudge on a certain megafranchise of superhero properties) and of criticism as a thing to hate (Duncan's potentially effective performance is undone by the script's disastrous treatment of a scene between her and Riggan that only stands to make the point that one must avoid the minority of critics who are like Rex Reed or Armond White) that drowns the movie in a self-righteous attitude. This is a troubled motion picture, but at least it's one that will gnaw at one's brain after viewing it. That type of film is hard to ignore.

Film Information

Michael Keaton (Riggan), Edward Norton (Mike), Emma Stone (Sam), Naomi Watts (Lesley), Andrea Riseborough (Laura), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Amy Ryan (Sylvia), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha).

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu and written by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo.

Rated R (language throughout, sexual content, brief violence).

119 minutes.

Released in select cities on October 17, 2014.