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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

October 24, 2014

The first and most honest reaction on seeing Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has got to be, “boy, is this guy full of himself.” And, to be clear, I say this as generally a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work. But for all its audacious, technical brilliance, this film comes off as a work of bombast by a director declaring himself better than Hollywood, better than Broadway, and better than critics, just as a start. It’s a crabby, petulant film, even as it’s raucously entertaining.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a Hollywood actor who peaked twenty-odd years ago as the star of three Birdman movies. Desperate for relevance, he enlists his lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), as producer and sinks everything he has into adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway version of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and at the St. James Theatre, no less.

After an accident sidelines one of the cast as they head into previews, they get Broadway star thespian Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to replace him, courtesy of his girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts). But Mike is a devoted method actor, which immediately unbalances the whole energy of the cast and crew. He clashes strongly with Riggan, who he sees as an outsider and a dilettante.

But since that’s not enough we also get some throwaway plotlines. Castmate Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is also Riggan’s current romantic partner, and she might be pregnant. Then we get the supposed voice of the millennial generation in Sam (Emma Stone), his daughter by ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who is fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant. And, as if Mike wasn’t enough push-back from the Broadway in-crowd, the only person whose opinion really counts in the success of the show is the New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who is already writing her scathing review before even seeing the play, just because she hates the very idea of superhero movies.

Oh, and one more thing: for pretty much the entire week leading up to the opening, Riggan is in the midst of a psychotic break, hearing the growly voice of Birdman in his head and hallucinating telekinetic powers.

Just to make sure we notice all these different things going on, Iñárritu insists that everyone be Acting at full volume all of the time. The only time someone isn’t yelling is if they’re delivering a quiet, emotionally overwrought monologue. The camera swoops in to give each actor their own wild-eyed close-up in turn. The effect is overwhelming — an attempt to beat the audience into submission just as solidly as a gasoline explosion chaotically edited by Michael Bay.

But instead of chopping the film apart, Iñárritu works with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot it in such a way that most of it looks like one continuous shot. Why? I really can’t say. It doesn’t even pretend to take place in subjective time, like Rope or Silent House do. Some backstage sequences might be really effective in this style — I’d love to see Lubezki repeat the trick on a production of Noises Off — but it doesn’t take long to feel like showing off, and to the detriment of the story. Throwing in a CGI action sequence is Iñárritu’s way of gilding the lily: “Look, I can pull off impressive visual stunts, too!”

And that feeds back into the overall tone. The mixed messages the film sends sound like a spoiled child wanting to have everything his way, even when they contradict each other. He indicts Hollywood blockbusters through Mike in one breath, but then paints self-styled artists as ridiculous and pretentious in the next. He presents a caricature of a critic — an attempt to undercut criticism of the film itself, maybe — and then has her echo his own criticism of mass-market movies, which only serves to undercut his own points.

All this dissonance would be maddening — and easy to dismiss as incoherent babble — if it weren’t for the fact that the whole thing is so damn fun. It’s sublimely ridiculous and surreal in its garish, blown-out performances. Everyone feels like a version of their actual public persona, as seen through a funhouse mirror. Keaton, of course, was Tim Burton’s Batman; Norton is famous for rewriting his parts, and refused to return to his own superhero franchise as The Hulk; Stone could have replaced an unreliable Lindsay Lohan. Only Galifianakis comes off as more normal than usual, probably because we’re only used to seeing him as an outrageous idiot-manchild.

Maybe that’s the point, though: there is no real point but to have fun with it. Disregard all of Iñárritu’s self-serious harrumphing about “art films should just be called ‘films'” as an Andy Kaufman-style bomb-throwing performance to drum up attention and outrage. Yes, some Hollywood blockbusters are excessive; yes, some method actors can be ridiculous; yes, some critics have an outsize sense of their own importance. Anyone who takes themselves and their art too seriously is in need of a little deflation. After a trio of somber, self-important dramas, Iñárritu himself certainly does, and Birdman has its talons sharpened for the task.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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