Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – A Review

Alejandro Inarritu directs Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in Birdman or The unexpected virtue of ignorance set in the world of New York’s Broadway theatre and tells the story of a washed up actor in a Mise en abyme setting.

Riggan Thompson played by Michael Keaton is a once-famous actor known for his starring role as the Birdman-the superhero in 3 movies. Long gone are the days of box office successes and adoring masses and Riggan finds himself irrelevant and artistically unsatisfied and decides to adapt a well-known and much respected playwright’s show for Broadway which needs him to find a suitable actor to fill the playbill after the current actor is injured in an accident while on set which Riggan believes was caused by him. In walks Edward Norton’s Mike a much loved theatre darling with a raging ego and a surety in his craft which seems to threaten Riggan. What enfolds is the backstage and preview shenanigans as Riggan tries to put together a show which a part of him says will resurrect him in the world of performing arts while the other voice nags at the back of his head. The cast is supported by Naomi Watts who plays Mike’s wife/partner and Andrea Riseborough who plays Laura Riggan’s girlfriend and co-actor. Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s daughter and Zack Galifianakis who plays Jake Riggan’s lawyer and backer of the show, these two play a very understated but crucial supporting role which keeps this story moving forwards.

I had a major challenge with Innaritu’s Babel and found it to be an incoherent mess with a background score that was at odds with the story telling. Here too Innaritu seems to be working at a schizophrenic pace and creates an atmosphere that is so claustrophobic that it almost becomes too much to bear but then as the story starts taking shape and things start becoming a little clearer you start to appreciate the atmosphere and the almost off-beat drum score which seems to be reflecting Riggan’s state of mind and it comes together in sync only towards the end when Riggan delivers the climax at the end of his opening night. Michael Keaton is brilliant as is Edward Norton, their back and forth and their uninhibited exhibitionist portrayal of the insecurities, the vanities and the delusions that make up an actor is what carries the film. The Birdman alter-ego sequences are a genuine suspension of belief as you question yourself what the hell is actually going on and Innaritu doesn’t dumb it down for the audience to make them realize that Riggan isn’t telekinetic but plain delusional.

There is however a problem of pacing as the initial preview pieces take way too long to establish the plot points that they need to and it takes forever for the story to pick up steam, and for a movie under 2 hours it is criminal. But this is easily overcome by the dark humor and the brilliant commentary on the state of the movies today. A number of important arguments are made in the due course of natural conversations between the characters, the most relevant ones are about the cultural genocide where everything is driven by the superhero franchises and the big weekend opening numbers and the conversation that Sam has with Riggan who seems to be holding onto a romantic’s notion of what it means to be culturally relevant and to scoff at social media without understanding the power it provides and the need for its existence. It is here that the movie really succeeds. Emanuel Lubeziski’s work behind the camera is frenetic and filled with the same anxious energy that Riggan seems to possess and it takes you in to the actor’s headspace and the way he utilizes every nook and cranny of the St. James theatre it just opens up the world that exists both front and back of the stage.

Watch this movie if you want to get an insight into what drives actors, the big stars and the burnt out ones alike. What it for an incredible and unrelenting 2nd and 3rd act where Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton all shine bright and luminous. Michael Keaton just moved to the top of my list of actors who should take home the gold on 22nd February.

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