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Review: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


About: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a 2014 American black comedy film co-written, produced, and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. The film stars Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts.

Plot: Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a washed-up Hollywood actor who once played the superhero Birdman in three blockbuster movies, before leaving the multi-billion-dollar franchise. More than 20 years after Birdman, Riggan wants to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The play is produced by Riggan’s best friend/lawyer Jake (Galifianakis), and stars Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Riseborough), first-time-Broadway-actress Lesley (Watts), and Mike (Norton). Riggan’s daughter Sam (Stone), a recovering drug addict, serves as his spunky, bedraggled assistant. In order to afford Mike as a replacement actor (after Riggan supposedly tries to kill the first actor by causing a spotlight to fall on him during a rehearsal), Riggan refinances a house that should belong to his daughter, Sam, rendering him flat broke. Throughout all of this, Riggan from time to time hears his voice as Birdman either mocking or bolstering him; he also performs small feats of telekinesis and levitation when he is alone.

I liked this film but it is a wee bit pretentious. I am generally a fan of films that push the boundaries of cinema. The thing is, even within difference there is a spectrum of good and bad. Birdman falls right in the middle. I liked that I read the French philosopher Roland Barthes [mentioned in the film], I liked that I knew that a homeless man was reciting Shakespeare, I liked that I knew that some of the drumbeats were ‘diagetic’ but at the same time I was like, so? None of these things were necessary, you didn’t need to recognize any of this – It was more like a wink to those in the know and that, my friends, is pretentious to me.

We review many films here that are action or fantasy or started out in comic books etc. so it is very interesting to see the angst of an actor who made oodles of money in a big action/fantasy blockbuster but who wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.

The story is interesting in that it emphasizes ‘reality.’ These are actors in a drama about actors in a drama. Notions of fantasy vs. reality are underscored by Riggan who played Birdman and might be a superhero or not. Edward Norton, as a Method actor, lives his role. Emma Stone, plays a drug addict, which calls into question her perspective etc.

The behind-the-scenes perspective and wonky personalities of celebrities or actors are priceless really. There is an unflattering commentary on reviewers and journalists. In Time magazine, the director Alejandro Gonzalez claims that the portrayal is not personal but “true to the universe of the film.” He says; … the critic represents what he has been fearing all this time, which is to be judged. And I think that in the theater scene, it’s not a secret that a few people have the power to finish a production. It’s a reality and everyone knows it. It’s almost like a dictatorship, represented by Lindsay Duncan playing a critic who has enormous power and incredible disrespect for what Riggan Thomson represents. She tells him she hates him and what he represents — they are polar opposites. What she says to him is right, and it’s powerful.

Entertainment Weekly says; the 63-year-old actor [Michael Keaton] plays the former star of a superhero franchise, now begging for a comeback. It’s a role that seems custom-crafted for the guy who used to be Batman, and the kind of mesmerizing meta-performance that milks Oscar votes. But Keaton isn’t buying (or selling) that story.

I too thought of the similarities, briefly, but they just didn’t stick. Keaton says, “In terms of the parallels, I’ve never related less to a character than Riggan.” I guess that I resonated with the difference.

Anyhoo, we spend much of the film listening to the voice of Birdman, who is our hero’s inner monologue. This voice is contentious because we don’t know if it really exits apart from Riggan’s imagination. He also displays remarkable physical feats. No one sees these feats and when his manager walks in on one, we still are uncertain about the manager’s perspective. Maybe others are not allowed to witness these feats…

Edward Norton co-stars in “Birdman” as a prima donna actor who joins Riggan’s play as a last minute replacement. Emma Stone plays Riggan’s rehabbed daughter. She is an angry waif with an attitude. They are brilliant.

After seeing that most of the cast, the director and the film have been nominated for many awards, I am in complete agreement.


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