“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is one of the most thrilling films I’ve ever seen – which is pretty amazing, since it’s not a big-budget, action-packed, superhero blockbuster. “Birdman” is being categorized by most as a dark comedy, though it’s one of those incredible pieces of work that’s very tough to describe in a few words. The story centers around a different kind of superhero, one who’s desperately trying to save his career and himself.
Michael Keaton played the iconic Gotham City crime fighter, Batman, twice on the big screen in “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992). But when he was offered 1995’s “Batman Forever”, he thought the script “sucked”, and he ended his run as the Caped Crusader. In “Birdman”, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor best known for playing the mega-superhero Birdman in a trio of wildly successful films, which made him a Hollywood superstar. But Thomson had enough with the franchise and said “No” to “Birdman 4” (also in ’92). His life and his status as a famous actor haven’t been the same since.
It’s surprising that this role wasn’t written specifically for Keaton. So we must credit incredible casting. 2014 has been a comeback year for Keaton, with small, but over-the-top and memorable roles in “Need For Speed” and “RoboCop” leading to what will go down as the top performance of his career. Keaton’s Thomson is looking to make a comeback of his own, by starring in a Broadway play that he’s also written, is directing and has financed. It’s his final chance to prove to everyone that he can do more than simply be an action hero in a bird suit.
From the opening credits sequence, the soundtrack of “Birdman” comes from a single drum set, and the beat underscores the highs and lows of the action, in perfect rhythm with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s vivacious camera work. Inarritu follows the characters intimately throughout the St. James Theatre in Times Square (where 95% of the film takes place), sweeping through hallways, up and down stairs and in and out of dressing rooms, continuing scenes for upwards of 10-minutes straight, giving us a closer feel of what it’s like inside a Broadway show than you could ever get on a backstage tour. His lens wraps around every character and every situation, from the dynamic confrontations between Riggan and new co-star Mike (Edward Norton), to the emotional breakthroughs experienced by the supporting players. And the final act is simply fearless filmmaking.
The screenplay, by a team of four writers, including Inarritu himself, is packed with witty, sharp dialogue, some dark elements, and smart, biting commentary on a variety of topics, including Hollywood vs. Broadway, movies vs. the stage, actors vs. celebrities, performers vs. critics, career vs. family, and “the biggie”: the true meanings of life. There’s so much happening in “Birdman”, and in the play within the movie (Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, which mirrors, in some ways, Thomson’s real life) and Keaton is able to maneuver this ship with such ease and tenacity that it’s easy to make him the frontrunner in every Best Actor competition this awards season.
And his accompanying ensemble is equally first-rate. Zach Galifianakis is impressive as Thomson’s manager and best friend. And four actresses are all outstanding, including Andrea Riseborough as Thomson’s co-star and current love interest, Naomi Watts, as the other female lead in the play, and Amy Ryan as Thomson’s ex-wife. But it’s Emma Stone, in the role of Thomson’s post-rehab daughter, who outshines them all. She should get strong awards consideration.
“Birdman” is rated R for language, adult content, drug use, nudity, peril, and brief violence. It’s an odd film, which takes wild chances – and they all pay-off. Don’t be put-off by the title or the quirky trailer. This is a film you need to see. It is a soaring achievement, and the best movie of 2014.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” gets an A.