Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Although technically proficient because it is able to create an illusion that the film is shot via one long take, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” does not command an absorbing story. It reminded me of a typical Wes Anderson work: all style, no substance; all glamour, no soul. For that, I claim that this film will not stand the test of time.
Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play in order to be taken more seriously—both as an actor and as a person. His most recognizable role was playing a superhero back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and has been on a downward spiral of being forgotten since—at least in his mind. As the play gets closer to opening night, problems arise, starting with the lead actor needing to be replaced because of an “accident” involving a stage light falling on his head during rehearsal.
I always felt like I was watching actors performing rather than getting to know their characters as people first and then as thespians. I get it: It is supposed to be a self-aware comedy that lampoons the business. Thus, a certain level of hyperbole is expected. Still, there is a way to write the screenplay in such a way that we are drawn in, a part of the joke, instead of being kept at an arm’s length. Its charm, on the level of technique from behind and performance in front of the camera, proves evanescent. Around the thirty-minute mark, I found myself bored stiff. Ninety more minutes to go.
Perhaps the problem lies in having so many co-writers (the director, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó) having worked on the material. Because it wants so badly to introduce multiple subplots, many scenes come off extremely forced. Sam (Emma Stone) is having daddy issues and may or may not be back to doing drugs, Lesley (Naomi Watts) does not feel fulfilled even though she has reached her dream of being a part of a Broadway play, and Mike (Edward Norton) touches just about everybody’s nerves because he is too much into method acting that to describe him as “obnoxious” is putting it lightly.
The problem is that even though we learn information about the characters, it does not mean that depth comes naturally. This limitation is magnified by the fact that these characters are juggled like clockwork and I could tell three or four scenes away when the camera will return to them. One of the most frustrating things about sitting through a movie is having an exact idea what will happen and when. If our imagination is ahead of what is in front of us, that is a sign that maybe what we are seeing is a waste of time.
I did, however, find Keaton’s portrayal as a washed-up actor to be somewhat interesting. While the schizophrenic/“hearing voices” sort of mumbo jumbo is irritating, observe Keaton closely as he manipulates his face into portraying subtle emotions like fear and panic—that the play will not reach liftoff despite the amount of time, money, and effort he and his crew has put into it. Conversely, Keaton has a way of communicating exhaustion in fresh and exciting ways. Notice how he walks when he is by himself and compare that walk when he is around people. It is like putting on a mask around his entire body. Because Riggan wants the play to work so badly, he tries to communicate that everything is fine even though he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is a complete performance which helps to elevate the film.
“Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” caters to the in-crowd of theatre and fails to get the rest of the population who may not be as knowledgeable about the business, to care. To me, sitting through this film is like attending a therapy session where privileged people, who are not all that interesting to begin with, whine a lot for no good reason. There is a scene in which a character claims that there are real people out there with real struggles and real stories. I wanted to know about those people instead.