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Movie review: ‘Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

One of the great lines – and there are many – in Birdman is spoken by Ed Norton’s lauded method-actor Mike Shiner to Michael Keaton’s blockbuster star Riggan Thomas, who wants to earn respect by appearing on Broadway: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” The scene is happening on two levels. Riggan and Mike are arguing about Riggan’s reasons for doing Broadway, questioning his skills and his authenticity and his ego. But Norton is playing a version of himself, an absurdly gifted actor known for being difficult and loved by critics; he is prestigious and somewhat popular. Keaton is also playing someone like himself, an aging and fading star, known best for playing Batman and Beetlejuice, who is in a smallish film destined for Oscar season; he was once popular and now wants prestige. This meta-textual meaning makes the film both slyly funny and particularly immediate; it also raises the stakes for everyone involved. I’m not sure the film would work without this brilliant casting, but it doesn’t really matter. Because the film works. It’s innovative, constantly surprising, very funny and moving.
Riggan is a rich man from his role as Birdman in three massively successful superhero action films. Years later, divorced from Amy Ryan’s Sylvia and father to a troubled daughter named Sam played by Emma Stone, he is trying to become both relevant and important by writing, directing and starring in a play based on Raymond Carver’s iconic short story What We Talk about When We Talk About Love. The film begins with Riggan getting immensely frustrated with one of his actors, who conveniently gets hit on his head by a falling stage light. He’s replaced by Mike, who is sleeping with one of Riggan’s actors, a nervous gorgeous blonde played by Naomi Watts. Also in the play is Riggan’s girlfriend Laura, who may be pregnant, may be a lesbian and is played by Andrea Riseborough. Sam is also working on the play, as Riggan’s cranky, wise-cracking assistant, who Mike notices and starts pursuing.
While this plot could veer into either Bullets over Broadway comedy or Sunset Boulevard melodrama, the depiction of Riggan’s interior life makes the film wholly original. He has conversations with Birdman and when he’s alone he is able to throw things around with his mind, open and close doors, break vases, and possibly drop stage lights on the heads of bad actors. Whether or not Riggan is crazy or actually super powered is never really made clear, and the tension of whether we are watching reality or fantasy is sort of wonderful. But his depression and frustration and desire for relevance, to the world, to his daughter, and to his ex-wife, are all real. This is by far Keaton’s greatest performance, a true tour de force of versatility, believability and emotional honesty.
Keaton has never had material like Birdman, and he’s never had a director like Alejandro González Iñárritu, who elicited an epic performance from Keaton and an equally brilliant performance from Norton, whose Mike is a caustic, hilarious, nutty Lothario of surprising depth. Stone has thrilling confrontations with Keaton (in anger) and Norton (in lust) that I think will assure her an Oscar nomination to join theirs and that of Ryan, whose scenes with Keaton are the emotional center of the film. Iñárritu’s stagings and long, hand-held shots make these performances raw and spontaneous, though his methods also make them seem, ironically, as if they are live theater. The script he co-wrote also seems particularly stage-dramatic, in the references to Chekhov and the slapstick comedy Noises Off, but it works in expansive, fanciful ways that plays adapted for the screen often do not. It’s a film about plays and about film and actors and family and, in a way, the meaning of life, and it soars.

Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo
Starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton and Emma Stone
Rated R
Opens Oct. 24 at ArcLight La Jolla

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Posted by on Oct 23, 2014. Filed under Movie Review, Section 4A. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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