Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
by Hope Madden
You’ve heard the buzz. It’s loud and merited. The sharp and beguiling Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) sees a brilliant director and a magnificent cast at the height of their creative powers.
Playful and dark, the film follows a washed up Hollywood actor best known for a superhero franchise (an Oscar bound Michael Keaton, who certainly resembles that description). Struggling to regain relevance, he writes, directs and stars in a Broadway play. Meta from the word go, Birdman’s incisive exploration of the entertainment industry and the compulsion to perform couldn’t be more spot-on or more imaginative.
Director/co-writer Alejandro González Inárritu and his fluid, stalking camera ask a great deal from this ensemble as together they dissect fame – its proof and its power – in the digital age. From first to last, they are up to the task and then some.
They clearly relish a script that has such an insider’s perspective, skewering the self-absorption, insecurity and need for attention that fill the business. The performers embody these weaknesses and still create a tenderness for their characters. The comedy isn’t mean, though it is dark and edgy.
Edward Norton is hilarious in a bit of a self-parody as the true talent who pushes boundaries and strives for honesty – on the stage, anyway. He’s hardly alone. The entire ensemble – Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan and Amy Ryan – impresses.
Each has his or her own story, conflict, world, and Inárritu allows that to enrich the world he creates, but it’s all in support of Keaton in the finest turn of his often underappreciated catalog of performances.
He never falls back on the ticks and gimmicks that mark most of his comedic turns – quirks that made efforts like Beetlejuice so enjoyable. This performance is volcanic and restrained, pitiful and triumphant. His desperation is palpable and his madness is glorious. That Keaton can hit these disparate levels sometimes simultaneously inspires awe. Keaton has long been a unique talent, and while this role seems almost awkwardly custom made for the former Batman, the performance still could not have been less expected.
Inárritu, master of beautiful tragedy (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful), may be in impish humor with this effort, but Birdman is as dark and poetic as anything he’s created. Impeccably written, hauntingly filmed and superbly performed, Birdman is the first real contender Boyhood has faced for the best film of 2014.