Some films wash over you like a tide; Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance descends upon you like a tornado. Director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu transports you into the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an ageing Hollywood superstar yearning for legitimacy after being defined by three ‘Birdman’ blockbusters. We’re taken behind the curtain as Riggan bets all he’s got left on writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story with the assistance of his best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone), co-stars Lesley (Naomi Watts), Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and part saviour, part saboteur Mike (Edward Norton).
Mr. Iñárritu has you from the percussive beats and the motion of the opening shots draws you into the Broadway location, and in order to keep you in this disorientating state, drains into this hilarious demise in what feels like a single feature length shot. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who most notably crafted the look of Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning Children of Men and Gravity takes us into the behind the scenes frenzy of Riggan’s mind and the frantic playhouse. Editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione merge a series of incredibly choreographed shots together like surgeons that blur passages of time and space and keep the audience locked into the gyre of Riggan’s mind.
Mr. Iñárritu and his writing collaborators, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, collate a bramble of a narrative that somehow seamlessly interweaves the unreliable internal perspective of Riggan, interludes to how the other characters are also coping with the chaos and these amazing head to head performance confrontations. At its core there’s a desperation and yearning for success and it’s right on that biggest stage, when you’re caught figuratively and literally with your pants down (and in Times Square no less) that you can’t help but laugh.
Mr Keaton is absolutely masterful as Riggan, and it’s not just the true to life career defining performances that defines the core of the character and the man that make the role incredible; it’s him enveloping himself into the neuroses and insecurity of Riggan. He’s forced to take himself to vulnerability and to an emasculated and desperate place, withering away into insignificance. All the while his uncensored internal voice has grown out of control.
Ms. Stone is simply fierce as a young girl trying to get a second chance alongside the very man that’s defined her own mental scars. She’s the least polished or impressed with the significance of the forthcoming curtain call and goes toe to toe with Riggan at the peak of his bloated self-importance. In the same moment though she can’t help but be attracted to the ‘fuck you’ artistic nihilism of Edward Norton’s Mike. Norton crafts Mike as the almost exclusively authentic and committed to the life of the nightly chameleon on New York stages. He’s pretension incarnate, but in such a delectably fun way.
Ms Watts plays Lesley as gratefully clutching to this once in a lifetime opportunity, despite the egos alongside her clearly overshadowing her. She embodies the awareness of the unfair youth bias. Ms. Riseborough’s Laura is Riggan’s current flame that’s also been roped into playing a part in this production. It becomes clear to her that Riggan is far too involved with his own success to be involved in a relationship. Amy Ryan steps in as Riggan’s first wife Sylvia and provides a window to a much more balanced version of the man, but perhaps only slightly less self-destructive. Mr Galifianakis is unrecognisable in his softness, playing lawyer/investor/best friend as the only soothing medicine to Riggan’s insecurity and volatility. Watching him lose control, when he’s far away from Riggan, is a pleasure. This is Mr. Galifianakis is in his most tremendous dramatic turn yet, while being able to just ‘be’ funny to watch.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is extraordinary across the boards.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan,