To say that Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is meta is obvious and an understatement. But to say it may be Best Picture is my hope and prediction. Wonderful in totality and still amazing when broken into its constituent parts, Birdman is a massive theatrical achievement in almost every way; which is to say that it will certainly earn more than one Oscar nod. Possibly for Directing, Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, and Acting for Michael Keaton at least.
Keaton plays Riggan Thomas, an alternate version of his real self (and the same may be said of others in the cast, most notably Edward Norton). Riggan is best known for playing the superhero Birdman as a younger actor, but that role became such a soulless cash-grab that he turned down a fourth sequel (and no doubt a gob of money). But he’s never had that kind of success again, even though he may have deserved it. Instead, he’s lost a marriage, struggles with alcoholism, and must hire his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) to help him manage his life and resuscitate his career. Hiring her may also be a desperate attempt to finally make amends for never being there for her when he was young and successful. He may also be keeping her busy as she’s been in and out of rehab.
He’s also trying to stay current and relevant by directing and starring in an adaptation he wrote of a classic Broadway dramatic play called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. He loses a lead actor mid-rehearsal and finds his replacement in Mike Shiner, a gifted but notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor played by the aforementioned Norton. He’ll bring in the crowds if he doesn’t drive Riggan to replace him by opening night.
But that’s the least of Riggan’s problems, as his fellow lead actress (Andrea Riseborough) is also his girlfriend — who may also be pregnant; and the other female lead (Naomi Watts) is a talented movie actress who has performing anxiety being on-stage for the first time. Riggan’s stage manager (Zach Galifianakis) tries to keep his mind on the play because cynical theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) has it in for him due to his Birdman past, and one bad review from her could sink the whole enterprise. Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) tries to support him by showing up on opening night, but her presence may just reopen old wounds.
But Birdman is not just overshadowing Riggan; he’s also the Christian Bale-Batman voice in his head, telling him he just needs to return to the role and all will be right with the world. Birdman’s primal bluster is Riggan’s Id and also his Super(hero) Ego, as everything he says to Riggan may be vulgar, but also makes perfect sense (“How did we end up here? This place is horrible…You had it all. You were a movie star, remember? Now you’re about to destroy what’s left of your career. We should have done that reality show they offered us. Listen to me, man. You are the original! Let’s make a comeback! You’re Birdman! You are a god!”). Meanwhile, Riggan may actually possess Birdman’s superhuman capabilities… or does he? Are they also only in his head?
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu makes all the right moves, as nearly every aspect of Birdman is perfect. The writing is fresh, funny and engrossing. The actors are spot on, portraying versions of themselves who are also drawing on the pain of their daily lives for the performances both on- and off-stage onscreen. The movie is presented as one unbroken tracking shot, giving the dual impression that you are literally keeping pace with the actors, and that it is all happening in real time. The soundtrack is largely compositions by drummer Antonio Sanchez who also breaks the fourth wall on occasion. The percussive nature of the soundtrack mirrors the bombast in Riggan’s head, as the drummer’s physical presence in the movie itself mirrors the surreal nature of his headspace. Every element of Birdman has at least a direct and an indirect meaning, a conscious and subliminal point, right down the the messages on the billboards dotting the streets surrounding the Broadway theater (one of them reading “Focus” during a particularly troublesome stroll).
I can’t say enough good things about Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It lovingly skewers everything we love and hate about this business we call Show, and in a way that locked my eyes onscreen, and plastered a grin on my face for the entire length of the movie. Just go see it, and bring a friend, they’ll thank you. And you’re welcome.
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo (screenplay)
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence, and for being 119 minutes of awesome