Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu
Written by Alejandro G. Inarritu & Nicolas Giacobone & Alexander Dinelaris & Armando Bo

In this era of superhero movies and blockbuster special effects bonanzas galore, we see reputable movie stars making a lot of money at the expense of the willing movie goer. There is nothing wrong with this structure. The public wants it and is willing to pay for it, so why not produce want the audience wants? But then we get a crossover film like this, which speaks to filmmaking as an art industry and not just an entertainment one. Birdman takes the current spectrum of action hero and slants the light to twenty years in the future, to see what these action heroes of today will look like, feel like after their heyday on top of the box office is over.

Birdman is about Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who is famous for playing Birdman in three successful superhero films, but has found himself searching for his creative inspiration. He has decided to adapt, direct, and star in his own production of a play on Broadway by one of his favorite playwrights. Trying to find his second chance at stardom, he employs his fresh out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone) for a second chance, and gives a woman (Naomi Watts) her first chance on Broadway. As the plays opening night nears, Riggan finds himself struggling with his self-worth and his own ability to be a successful artist.

Movies like this don’t come around very often, movies where the creative forces behind them are so confident in their vision, and the execution of style and performance are so boldly pushed to the boundary of perfection that the end result is nothing short of a unique revelation. In a year where I would argue the Hollywood fare has not been to the quantity or quality as it has in years past, Alejandro G. Inarritu and his team of collaborators manage to salvage the experience with one of the best of the past several years. Birdmanrecalls another of my favorite films from the recent past, Anna Karenina, in its ambition, boldness, and overall confidence in execution.

Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, takes a play and literally stages it within the framework of the film. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, “Chivo”, do something similar, but equally effective. They manage to stage the entire length of the film in a single take. Surely movie magic is happening behind the scenes to garner this effect, but the film flows from scene to scene, from night to day, from stage to backstage with the illusion of no edits, much in the same manner an audience would watch a play, with sets changing behind the scenes, and our eyes not having a break from the stimulant of the performance. The style and execution in this delivery is astonishing and impressive beyond words.

Central to the success of the film’s performance, are the individual performances within the film itself. Led by Michael Keaton, who skirts the edge of emotional/existential breakdown, the cast is stellar. Edward Norton and Emma Stone in particular are strong. For a film about a stage play, the performances had to be great, with each character bearing a little bit of the responsibility of the communicating the story in a succinct and powerful way. The cast accomplishes this.

On the other hand, for all of its bold style and delivery, the story is perhaps the only aspect lacking and holding it back from being one of my favorites of all time. Riggan is egotistical and, after a successful career where he made plenty of money, he is still searching for acceptance instead of doing art for the sake of art, or heck, for the sake of self expression. The female characters never feel as well-rounded or important to the project as the men. And to that point, in an age where the question is often, where are the roles in Hollywoodfor older women, this is a film about an older man struggling with his creative ability and accessibility. For a film about art, it seems to pander to the art world, which causes myself great struggle with the film, which, for all else, is a masterwork in execution and vision. Birdmanis a film that doesn’t have a signature moment in its runtime. The whole sequence is its signature moment. The accomplishment start to finish is astounding in its ability to explore the constraints of both stage and screen, all the while exploring the constraints of Riggan and his ability to be at peace with himself both personally and professionally. Inarritu has made interesting films before, but with Birdman, he may have made his masterpiece, or close to it.

**** – Masterpiece


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