When something is done naturally, it comes off as effortless. To us, it would be like breathing. To drummers, it would be like drumming. To birds, it would like flying. To Alejandro González Iñárritu, it would be like putting together a film that interweaves both technical skill and narrative mastery, like he did in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Effortless.
Birdman plays out like a surreal dream (nightmare at times). We see aging actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) grasping at a new way to re-invent himself as a person relevant to this current generation. With the help of his lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), and his assistant/daughter Sam (Emma Stone), they put together a Broadway version of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. This play will, of course, star Riggan, but will feature Lesley (Naomi Watts) and famed Broadway performer/method actor Mike (Edward Norton). Riggan’s play starts out like a tragedy with nothing going right, his co-star Mike trying to steal the spotlight, and already getting prejudged by the most influential theater critic on Broadway, who has vowed to write the worst review of her life even before she has gotten to see the show.
Riggan is (unsuccessfully) running from a past where he played the iconic superhero Birdman, 30 years ago. Hoping to revive his career and celebrity, he has put all of his money into this slowly crumbing play he wrote, directed and will star in. Unfortunately, his Birdman past is always right behind him, almost like a voice whispering in his ear. His much more successful past still lingers around to haunt him and it becomes a vehicle to drive him through his descent into insanity (or from insanity).
We must remember, that like a dream, the person having it becomes an unreliable narrator. Early on, we are given a glimpse of Riggan’s “powers”. He can levitate, fly and move objects with his mind (or at least he thinks he can). We are shown both sides, seeing him use his powers and seeing his “powers” explained as a possible psychosis. Drinking, sleep deprivation and insurmountable stress could all be factors, but honestly it doesn’t matter if we question his state of sanity because the moment you do, you’ve already lost the point of the film.
Birdman‘s success is not just due the great writing and directing of Alejandro González Iñárritu, which satirizes Hollywood, Broadway, and the social media sensationalism that creates dime a dozen “celebrities” out of moments of shame and embarrassment that become virally popular. The reason this film works so well as a cohesive piece is in large part thanks to the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who most recently won the Oscar for cinematography in the ground-breaking film Gravity (and will likely win it again for this film). The beautiful imagery and the fantastical elements are expertly interwoven into a dream-like sequence of long takes that are edited to seem like the entire film is all done in one take. Any person who can recall a dream knows that any sense of reality, physics and time are all relative, but what is constant is how seamless the transitions appear.
This play within a play would not soar without the performances that help give it lift. Norton’s portrayal of the often times ridiculous aspects of a method actors “process” threatens to swoop in and steal the show from Keaton, but it doesn’t reach the emotion heights Keaton’s character takes us to. The most interesting aspect of the film comes in the perfect casting of Michael Keaton in the role of Riggan, who might arguably mirror Keaton’s own superhero dilemma. Keaton is best known for his roles in a few films like Beetlejuice and The Company, but he is widely recognized as Batman in Tim Burton’s films. Whether this film was written with him in mind, or whether it was just glorious happenstance that he was chosen to play the role is unimportant. What is important is the impact he delivers with the showing of his mercurial, emotional range, and how convincingly he get us to want to believe that his character, Riggan, actually has superpowers.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is an ascent into the annals of greatness from beginning to end, delivering great performances, gorgeous visuals and a wildly intriguing tale to keep it all elevated. This is one realistic and contradictory flight of fancy that won’t be coming down any time son.
RATING: ★★★★★★★★★(9/10 stars)
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