Synopsis: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.
Release Date: October 17, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Drama, Comedy
The full title of the new film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). If that sounds like a hoity-toity philosophical name for a movie, well, it is kind of a hoity-toity philosophical movie.
Birdman stars Michael Keaton (Need for Speed) as Riggan Thomson, an actor who became famous playing a superhero called Birdman in the nineties. In order to leave his action hero reputation behind him, Riggan decides to adapt a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway play, casting himself as one of the leads. As opening night approaches, Riggan is forced to replace the other leading male. One of his actresses (played by Naomi Watts from The Impossible) recommends a rising star named Mike Shiner (Moonrise Kingdom‘s Edward Norton), and Riggan’s best friend and lawyer, Brandon (Zach Galifianakis from The Hangover franchise), agrees, as Mike’s addition will both sell tickets and guarantee positive reviews. As if the combination of dealing with the stress of opening his play and Mike’s ego weren’t enough, Riggan also has to listen to the voice of his past starring role, Birdman, second guess his every decision.
The screenplay for Birdman was written by Inarritu along with Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo (the guys who wrote The Last Elvis), as well as first-timer Alexander Dinelaris. The varied authors is apparent in the script; it’s a wordy movie, but with just as much subtext as actual dialogue. The conflict in the film comes from both the interaction between the characters and Riggan’s struggle with his inner demons. There are complex relationships that form between the players, and every interrelated storyline comes together into a highly entertaining film. Birdman gives a fly-on-the-wall look at a group of very dysfunctional characters.
There are really two movies happening within Birdman. This first involves the obvious struggle to get Riggan’s play off the ground amidst all of the chaos and calamity that seems to be cursing the production. The other one, a much more subliminal movie, occurs in Riggan’s head; he is constantly berated and antagonized by his older superhero ego, to the point of his becoming psychologically unstable. Riggan’s internal movie is made more complicated by the fact that Inarritu is purposely vague about how much of it is actually inside Riggan’s head; the film opens with Riggan levitating in his dressing room, and he may or may not have used telekinesis to cause the accident that forces him to replace his lead actor in the beginning of the film. The real Riggan seems to have powers that come straight out of the Birdman Riggan’s movies, but none of the other characters ever really witnesses them in action, so it is unclear as to whether or not those powers actually exist in the real world. The ambiguity does get a little confusing at times, with the viewer sometimes wondering if the entire film is a dream or not, but a little confusion can be a good thing. All of the questions without answers turn Birdman into a very engrossing film.
Because it’s basically a live theater production, the individual cast members in Birdman have their work cut out for them. Lucky for Inarritu, they’re all up for the task. The actors exploit small subtleties in their performances that really sell the story. For example, at the beginning of the film, Naomi Watts seems to be phoning it in, giving a sub-standard performance of her character. When it is revealed that the scene is part of a rehearsal, her acting goes from shoddy to genius; she purposely dials it back to seem like an amateur for the sake of the film. It’s incredible, and all of the cast are able to do little things like that. Michael Keaton himself seems like he might be drawing from a bit of personal experience for his role; the actor became famous for playing Batman in the eighties, and has been trying to step out of that shadow for decades. In addition to Keaton, Watts, Norton, and Galifianakis, the cast also features Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) as Riggan’s druggie daughter, Amy Ryan (“The Office”) as his compassionate ex-wife, and Andrea Riseborough (W.E.) as the second female lead of the play. Every single member of the company carries their weight, even in the minuscule roles. Birdman is a perfect example of a finely-tuned ensemble.
The bulk of the music in Birdman was composed by powerhouse jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez (who has been Pat Metheny’s drummer for the last 15 years). The soundtrack is obviously written by a drummer; it’s almost completely made up of splashy, swingy, solo drumming that gives the film a beatnik atmosphere. It’s remarkably effective for such a simple score, and the film even pokes fun at itself at one point as two of the characters walk down the block and pass a street drummer who is pounding away, matching the soundtrack beat for beat, making the rhythmic music diegetic instead of just having it remain in the background (they even toss a few coins at him). Birdman‘s soundtrack is rounded out by a handful of classical standards by the likes of Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky, but those just serve to make the viewer want more of the drumming. Sanchez’s percussion score keeps Birdman moving forward at just the right pace.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directs the hell out of Birdman. The film has a real live theater feel, thanks mostly to the directorial decision of having the entire narrative take place in what appears to be a single take. It’s not actually one shot, but it’s convincing enough; the camera follows the action through set and costume changes, even carrying over into different days, following different characters through their varied situations. Inarritu borrows Alfonso Cuaron’s regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), and out-Cuarons Cuaron – the filmmaking behind Birdman is absolutely seamless, to the point where the audience doesn’t even realize that what they’re watching doesn’t contain any cuts until it’s halfway through the film. It’s ambitious, but Inarritu pulls it off well, and his direction gives Birdman an identity that is all its own. Birdman is an absolutely incredible display of modern filmmaking.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
- Screenwriter(s): Alejandro Gonzalez InarrituNicolas GiacoboneAlexander Dinelaris
- Story: Armando Bo
- Cast: Michael Keaton (Riggan)Emma Stone (Sam) Zach Galifianakis (Jake)Naomi Watts (Leslie)Edward Norton (Mike)
- Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
- Production Designer(s): Kevin Thompson
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score:
- Music Performed By: Antonio Sanchez
- Country Of Origin: USA