“Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” – a film review by Gary Chew
Alejandro Iñárritu has made it possible for film goers to take a wild ride on either side of reality and unreality with his new film “Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” What else could one expect from a motion picture with such a wise and clever title?
First off, you might think that Birdman is just another movie heading for another seemingly unending franchise about a superhuman guy who flies through the air doing good. Well, you’ve got it half right. The other part of it is that the guy or famous actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), is so washed up and mentally screwed, he’s seeking absolution for playing the vapid role of a flying-through-the-air kind of guy (The Birdman) in three successful movies by mounting a serious, real Broadway classic play titled What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love? (A wise and clever title, too.)
We join the cast just before the play is to open and nothing is going right. A principal actor in the ensemble suffers a stage accident in rehearsal. There’s little time left to replace him (The understudy won’t do.) and Riggan has plenty — I say — plenty of personal problems that include his delusional ability for telekinesis. And oh, that loud, deep voice in his head that says all those dark, ugly things Riggan doesn’t want to hear. And we — the audience — get to see and hear all of that while the other characters in the movie don’t. It’s just us and Michael Keaton on an Iñárritu-induced acid trip.
Like magic, the replacement for the important male part in the play makes an entrance that might be described “deus ex machina,” but near the beginning of the movie. Don’t worry about the placement of the stroke, Edward Norton is the miraculous machine. He enters as Mike, a brilliant, ego-stuffed actor who knows every line — I say — every line of the play. Mike, like the real Mr. Norton himself, is a marvelous actor.
Sam (Emma Stone) is Riggan’s disturbed but lucid daughter. She’s just out of rehab and hangs out at the theater as “Aide de Daddy.” She sees through everything; father and daughter don’t get along a lot of the time. Great scenes! Keaton and Stone are overwhelming as they’re overwhelmed in the roles.
Did I say this movie has much interpersonal conflict like you’d see in an Edward Albee play?: It’s not so much who’s afraid of Riggan Thomson but what more can Riggan Thomson be afraid of?
A curious sidebar to the evolution of this Iñárritu work is that the late author who wrote the short story What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love? came from his native state of Oregon to live in Paradise, California just before deciding to become a writer. His name is Raymond Carver. While in this neck of the Northern California woods, Carver also attended Chico State University.
Birdman is replete with fine actors … many of them playing stage actors. There’s Naomi Watts, one of the thespians in the play, and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex. A standout backup role is turned smartly by Zac Galifianakis playing Jake, who’s sort of the manager/attorney for Riggan. It’s great that Zac Man has jumped onto a really good script to ply his surging talent.
For me, two of the neater things about Birdman, if “neat” is the right word … is how Iñárritu gives his film a “sense of the stage” by suggesting that all of it is one long take without dissolves or cuts, or going-to-black — much like how it seems to stage actors knowing that when the plays begins, it existentially doesn’t stop for anyone until the final curtain.
Neat thing number two is the striking but brief appearances of Leslie Duncan. Her character is Tabitha. I could only describe her role as the honcho stage critic of a most leading newspaper in the City of New York. Wow, Riggan and Tabitha … do they have it out Edward Albee style in a bar just around the corner from the theater. Vitriol on the rocks!
I imagine it’s therapeutic for screenwriters and directors to put critics in “their place” for vicious commentary about what the creators have wrought to be art. “Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is a movie you have to see — because it is art.