Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a black comedy directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu with a screenplay by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo. The film follows Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), an actor with a wavering career (famous for portraying the superhero “Birdman”) who is looking to stage a comeback by directing and acting in a Broadway production. In the final days leading up to the show’s opening night, Riggan must battle himself as he attempts to reconcile his family and his career.
Despite the fact that each of writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous four feature films (Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful) was nominated for Oscars in a range of categories, Birdman is personally my first encounter with the critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker. Although none of Iñárritu’s films have won big on Oscar night, that is bound to change in just less than two weeks. In Birdman, Iñárritu has constructed one of the best original screenplays in the past few years, and this unique storyline flat out works on so many levels. It is an unparalleled, comeback-within-a-comeback story. Its lead character Riggan Thompson is making a comeback on Broadway after years of dormancy following his refusal to play the superhero “Birdman” in a fourth installment of the superhero series. All the while, actor Michael Keaton, after leaving Tim Burton’s Batman franchise in between the second and third films, has endured years without commercial or critical success and is making an acting revival of sorts in his Birdman role. Considering this casting decision and Iñárritu’s storyline, I figured Birdman would ultimately be too clever for its own good—I imagined it would be way too cheeky and a bit too heavy-handed in its attempt to be self-aware. Ultimately, I was wrong. Yes, it was cognizant of its meta-like approach, but the meticulous filmmaking style of Iñárritu and his witty script allowed the movie to hurdle high above its own cliché barriers to make the story entertaining and mesmerizing. Additionally, the comedic aspects of the script are genius. From Edward Norton and Michael Keaton’s back-and-forth during a rehearsal once Norton’s character is first hired, to the scene of Keaton walking around Times Square in nothing but his white underwear, Iñárritu understands the humor he is trying to evoke, and he does so incredibly well.
Part of the allure of Birdman is the way in which it is shot—it is absolutely masterful filmmaking. The movie appears to take place in one continuous long tracking shot. The “long take” has long (pardon the pun…I assure it was unintended) been my favorite filmmaking technique, and when one is done well, it is nothing short of exquisite. In the same vein as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the film-editing team carefully created the illusion of a single take throughout the film’s entirety—they utilized sleek, unsuspecting cuts during horizontal pans and close-up shots on the cast. The result is a film that plays out like a suspense thriller, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats as the unpredictable plot is shot “continuously.” The technique is choreographed and audacious, and it will be one of the most remembered aspects of Birdman for years to come. With its deft photographical magnetism, Lubezki will surely earn his second Oscar win for cinematography (his first was for 2013’s Gravity).
Considering the single “long-take” design for the film, each actor had to consistently be on his or her A-game. Michael Keaton was incredibly superb in his complicated role as the ego-driven, but lost-soul-like Riggan Thompson, and even though he may not win the Oscar for Best Actor (ain’t NOBODY beating Eddie Redmayne this year), it will long stand out (deservedly) as the magnum opus of Keaton’s career. The supporting performances in Birdman were also superlative. Both Emma Stone and Edward Norton received Oscar nominations for their roles as Thompson’s daughter and Thompson’s Broadway co-star, respectively, and these accolades come as no surprise. I will discuss Stone’s role in more detail later today in my “Best Supporting Actress” post, but suffice it to say, her performance as a recovering addict is cerebral, and as the sole voice of reason for Riggan Thompson, Stone plays the part of his daughter dexterously. Norton nearly steals the show with his performance as Mike Shiner, an acclaimed Broadway star that Riggan is forced to hire at the last minute, just days before the show’s premiere. Norton plays the “pompous asshole” character as scrupulously as possible, and his brilliant acting brings out the most hilarious of the film’s moments—during the show’s preview, Shiner gets drunk and tries to have actual sex with a co-star on stage! Check out Birdman. Everyone has been hyping this movie up for months, and it comes better than advertised. Birdman is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.
Birdman trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJfLoE6hanc
Academy Award nominations for Birdman:
Best Picture (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, and James W. Skotchdopole, producers)
Best Actor (Michael Keaton)
Best Supporting Actor (Edward Norton)
Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone)
Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Best Sound Editing (Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock)
Best Sound Mixing (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, and Thomas Varga)
Best Original Screenplay (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo)
Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2014:
- Gone Girl
- The Lego Movie