BIRDMAN (OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
*** (out of 5)
October 24, 2014
Michael Keaton as RIGGAN
Emma Stone as SAM
Zach Galifianakis as JAKE
Naomi Watts as LESLEY
Edward Norton as MIKE
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
If nothing else, “Birdman (or The Unexpected Value of Ignorance)” might be remembered as the most meta film of 2014. The cool thing about this is that it’s not meta the way “Scream” was meta (which is to say it was basically spoofing its own genre without being a direct spoof) or even a good spoof like “Spaceballs” was meta (which includes a scene in which the characters literally read ahead in the script). Instead, “Birdman” uses the history of its own actors to not just present art imitating life but also to add a little zing to the marketing effort.
At its heart, “Birdman” is a character drama, and it’s going to naturally appeal to anyone who has worked with actors because the focus is on the angst and struggles they have with their tumultuous careers. In the film, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor who used to be a global phenomenon when he starred in a series of superhero films about the character Birdman. Now, years after he quit the role, Riggan is trying to eke out some acting credibility by producing, writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
What results is a dark comedy of errors as everything that could possibly go wrong with the production goes wrong – from a light falling on the head of one of the leads to his replacement launching into a drunken fit during a preview night.
Part of the brilliance of “Birdman” isn’t necessarily the film itself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent movie with some powerful performances and innovative set-ups that are deftly crafted together. However, what makes the film work is the fact that similar to his character, Keaton had walked away from the Batman role in the early 1990s when it was arguably the biggest thing in superhero movies. I’m sure even Keaton isn’t aware that, while he’s done some decent work since “Batman Returns” in 1992, he isn’t exactly at the top of his game any more or an A-list actor that audiences are demanding.
Of course, if you look at the marketing of the movie (and the title itself), you’d expect there to be more Birdman in the film. There are a couple scenes that utilize the character (enough that I left kind of wanting Hollywood to greenlight an actual “Birdman: The Movie” superhero flick), but even then most of Birdman’s appearances are as the dark voice in Riggan’s head which seems to suggest he is going mad.
But it’s this superhero angle that gets people jazzed about the film, and I wonder if some of my colleagues who love this movie got an added emotional bump just to see Keaton in a cape and muscle suit again. To help play into this, “Birdman” also features other superhero movie veterans, including Edward Norton (from “The Incredible Hulk,” and the only actor to walk away from a Marvel Cinematic Universe lead character) and Emma Stone (from “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies).
In this sense, “Birdman” becomes a bit of a gimmick movie, which is used to mask the otherwise angst-filled and art-house inspired character study. That’s where the real core of the story is, and that’s where things do work. This superhero angle, plus the fact that the film was big enough to afford some pretty cool scenes featuring big-budget potential (particularly an underwear-clad walk through crowded New York City streets), makes this film more than just a morose meandering conversation piece.
In the end, “Birdman” is just a character piece with a lot of set dressing and an out-of-the-box approach. There’s a lot of in-jokes for movie buffs and drama folks, which adds to its value. It may not be what you expect, but there are some laughs to be had and a strong sense of character led by Keaton.