Movie Review: Birdman, Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)- Alejandro Gonzalaz Iñárritu Creates an Impeccably Crafted and Humorously Insightful Criticism of Existentialist Malaise

birdman2There are few myths as empty in reality as the promise of continuous fame and importance that Hollywood seems to perpetuate to the masses on a grand scale for Hollywood as an entity is on par with an unforgiving deity that can giveth as easily as it can taketh away. In the grand scheme of things, however, the importance of our actions, whether they are artistic ambitions or reclaiming a sort of fragile sense of relevance, are merely a dot amongst many that fill an entire roll of easily disposable toilet paper. That is the existentialist struggle that befalls Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu stunning masterful achievement Birdman, or more aptly named The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, which ultimately becomes a surrealist indictment of modern times and the all too typical struggle to find purpose. But beyond its familiar fable there’s nothing typical about Birdman for it’s a tour de force cinematic achievement of technical execution behind and in front of the camera that features riveting performances and seamless production planning that’s all contained in a layered character study that devastatingly exposes the faults of ambition, the mysticism behind the cult of celebrity, and the roots of familial decay. Though its dissection of Hollywood, Broadway, and the social media frenzy fame of social media becomes dominantly apparent it really is a backseat to the film’s perfection of self in telling a traditional story of insecurity and second chance reinvention that is heightened by Keaton’s enduringly charismatic presence and Emmanuel Lubezki’s definitive cinematography. However, what makes Birdman truly soar above potentially being labeled a cinematic gimmick of technique and performance is Iñárritu’s immaculately graceful hand of foresight that guides the film’s blend of metaphysical realism, nightmarish surrealism, and humorous Meta self-reflection into a cohesive piece of artistic uniqueness. And in that uniqueness we have a film that emphatically invites us into a dizzying reality of intense modern day madness that becomes its own perceptive fable that is paradoxically painful and fascinating to experience.

Iñárritu isn’t a stranger to complexly layered narratives since most of his films are interwoven collisions of people, fates, and beliefs, including the triptych of loss and regret in Amores Perros, the unconventionally structured 21 Grams, and the action reaction world drama of Babel. His last film Biutiful saw a departure from the repeating theme of interlocking characters into a more intimate study of one character which also meant a departure from collaboration with screenwriter Guillermo Ariaga, a move that has proven to be wise simply Iñárritu’s creative growth. With Birdman there’s a continuation of Iñárritu’s desire to explore one character and that character is Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor seeking second chance fame redemption as he tries to write, direct, and star in his own Broadway adaption of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in an attempt to erase his ignoble past as an iconic superhero known as Birdman. Ironically the script written by Iñárritu and his other three screenwriters, Argentinians Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo as well as New York playwright Alexander Dinelaris Jr, is complexly layered in maximalist sensationalism as compared to all of Raymond Carver’s minimalism and yet that seems to be part of the poetic point of Iñárritu’s intentions. At center stage is a character study of debilitating insecurity in the present versus the toxic blockbuster sized ego of the past as Thompson gradually descends into existential madness as the pressures of his fading relevance, his desperation for acceptance, and his creative doubt weigh heavy on his fragile state of mind. The film opens with a pristine surrealist image of this very dynamic as Thompson floats in what appears to be a transcendent state of nirvana while a throat cancerous inner monologue of egoism reflects negatively on how the hell did they get to this low point in their collective career with the they being Thompson himself and his almost demonic alter ego Birdman fraying the ends of Thompson’s thin grasp of sanity. Birdman’s script is a rambunctiously unique reflection on mid-life malaise, the existential struggle of meaning, and a perceptive showbiz satire all piercingly focused on one man’s pivotal struggle of creative self to the brink of suicide bringing it to a level of creative character reflection on par with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz or Federico Fellini’s 8 ½.

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Though Birdman takes place within a week or so there seems to be a transcendence of time and space as they flow together much like the technical movements of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and flawless planning of numerous tracking shots that are impeccably put together as one seamlessly long one two hour take. Coming off an Oscar win with his work on Gravity with other Mexican directing collaborator Alfonso Cuarón, Lubezki takes that same dedication to precision and storytelling grace here for Birdman and makes something far more astonishing with decorated sets, a blend of realistic environments with surrealist actions, and occasional brilliant deviations into special effects spectacle. Utilizing the cavernous, almost labyrinthine confines of the St. James Theater Iñárritu and Lubezki construct a perfectly unified technical achievement that follows a series of dramatic revelations centered around Thompson’s relationships with his neglected daughter (Emma Stone), his more talented acting cohort Mike (Edward Norton), his loyal yet strained producer Jake (Zach Galifinakis), and his desperate for affection girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). As the camera moves from on the stage to the wings of the theater to occasionally outside its tomb like confines it becomes almost an animated living organism that steadily adapts to the actions of its subjects getting frantic as Thompson and Mike engage in a less than manly physical encounter or gracefully flies with Thompson’s Birdman subjectivity. If filmmaking is indeed a form of illusion then Iñárritu and Lubezki have demonstrated with Birdman that they are true Houdini like masters of cinema magic as realism mixes with subjectivity in a brilliant and astonishing fashion as they make a thrilling, humorous, and flawless experience in technical mastery that includes the brilliance of performance.

It’s an equally impressive feat that the actors in Iñárritu’s impeccably constructed film have the dramatic chops, comedic timing, and collaborative sensibilities to maneuver with the graceful camerawork and each other in a fascinating dance of ballroom quality performance. Each actor contributes to the fully realized work of Iñárritu as a character study of existential loss and metaphysical reflection serving as humorously dramatic attributes to Michael Keaton’s fully realized tour de force performance as the mentally unstable Riggan Thompson. On a humorously self-reflective level Birdman acts as an insider Hollywood satire that exploits its actors’ biographies that cleverly invites parallels of realistic circumstance to heighten the perceptive cult of celebrity criticism at the heart of the film. Thompson might as well be an extreme fictional doppelganger of Keaton himself since they are both haunted by a franchise blockbuster past that they left in order to seek out other creative avenues that simply didn’t appear. The film utilizes Keaton’s past with a mixture of self-referential modernist humor as an intriguing device to aid in bringing about a deeply personal and incredibly revealing performance that is artistically risky and exceptionally executed. At one point Thompson’s throat cancerous alter ego Birdman interjects as they’re watching some entertainment news story on Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man stating an almost real life truism, “That clown doesn’t have half your talent, and he’s making a fortune in that Tin Man outfit.” Edward Norton is another real life as fiction attribute to the layers of Birdman as the contemptuous theater actor Mike as it utilizes his notorious unlikeable persona on film sets and the difficulty to rein him in as a controlled entity in his professional work. As a scene stealer Norton works congruently with Keaton in both physical and mental balance that ignites some of the films best scenes in both dramatic flair and comedic excellence that it simply adds to the natural flow of the work as a whole and to Keaton’s return of exceptional charismatic presence. Keaton is the central pillar of performance in Iñárritu’s Birdman who is the stable element for all the other performers to play off his balance of internalized revelation and vibrant externalism that makes for a career defining performance.

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Dissecting the abhorrent mass-market attitude of Hollywood, the pretentious world of Broadway, and the 21st Century infirmity of celebrity is no easy task and yet Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s film Birdman is a perceptive and scathing disclosure into all three. By focusing on one man’s insecure obsessions with reclaiming his famed prominence of the past Iñárritu has fashioned an impeccably produced and incredibly insightful layered narrative about how fame will be lost in the scope of existence while personal acceptance has a lasting impression. A laminated quote hangs on Thompson’s dressing room mirror stating, “a thing is a thing not what is said of that thing,” which is the humorously ineloquent way of stating the film’s narrative intentions that the opinion of others, whether it is the venomous thoughts of a critic or the adorning love of superficial fans, doesn’t define a person’s existence. And yet despite its weighty philosophical undercurrents and painfully realized dramatic motifs Birdman is still at its essence a comedy that strings the straw of Thompson’s personal anxieties and frayed mental state into entertaining comedic gold that has something to say in between the laughs. Iñárritu has left behind his crutch for unconventionally structured films and has embraced a new creative venue to reflect on intimate characters with flawed attributes that in their imperfections resonate to a completely human degree. Its full title Birdman, Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, suggests a complacency or happiness in never realizing your own life’s peak and though Thompson’s dramatic journey is vested completely on recapturing the fame of the pass the film’s Harvey like end suggests that looking ahead can open up the realm of all possibility.

Grade: A

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