Arts mirrors life on several levels in this dark comedy about a has-been movie actor who is trying to reboot his career by staging a Broadway play which inadvertently reflects his current situation.
In the film, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, who portrayed the popular superhero, Birdman, in several films as a younger actor. The film is self-reflective in a second way: Keaton himself played the iconic Batman in 1989 and 1992, after which he descended into relative obscurity. Reality and plot become intertwined.
Thomson is haunted by the voice of Birdman (whose raspy voice reminds of Batman). Thomson is desperate to show he’s an artist and not just a voice in a superhero suit. But the voice continuously taunts him, playing on his fears and insecurities. “You’re not an actor, you’re a celebrity,” Birdman sneers. Thomson desperately wants to matter and leave a legacy.
The film is full of technical brilliance. The soundtrack consists mostly of insistent drumming, the percussion reflecting the pace of the story. In the beginning, I found this annoying and distracting but soon it became part of the plot, reaching several crescendos, toying with the audience’s emotions, before letting up, releasing the tension just to start again minutes later.
Besides a few shots at the beginning of the film, Birdman appears as one single long take that is closer to the experience of a theatre show than a movie. In an interview with Variety, director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu explained that “we live our lives with no editing” and that the audience will be taken with the protagonist on his journey. The technique was risk. Iñárritu apparently faced resistance from unnamed “important” people. But, it works. The audience becomes submerged in Thomson’s experience.
The long shot also proved a logistical challenge. One of the best scenes in the film shows Thomson running through Times Square in his underwear after being accidentally locked out of the theatre. There wasn’t enough money to shut down the Square for the film, so regular onlookers became part of the scene. It was shot in four takes, two of which were filmed with Iñárritu’s smartphone. This footage is later used when Sam watches the video of her father on YouTube.
The secondary title, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, refers to a prominent critic’s scathing attack on Thomson, telling him that she will destroy his play with her review, even without seeing it. However, after opening night, she changes her mind and has high praise for the show. This refers back to a quote that is seen in Thomson’s dressing room: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
Keaton gives a stellar performance and has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, while he won the Golden Globe for best performance by an actor in a comedy.
The supporting cast is just as outstanding. Emma Stone plays Sam, Thomson’s estranged daughter, who’s fresh from rehab and angry at her absentee father. Her dialogue is scathing, acerbic, and acts as a punch to Thomson’s stomach. Edward Norton, meanwhile, is hilarious as Thomson’s egotistical co-star in the play.
Birdman is a film rather than a movie, art rather than pure entertainment, showing the beauty and immersive nature of cinema.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough