Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Review: Maybe a Little Too High Flying

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Birdman is, without a doubt, the most ambitious film of the year. But it’s actually ambitious to the point of being distracting.

The film opens on Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) seemingly meditating in mid air, setting a surrealist tone right at the start. From there, the camera sticks around, hardly ever cutting, at least noticeably. It’s really quite stunning to watch a movie where scenes aren’t as broken up through the magic of editing. But what about when we start to think about that while watching the movie and it actually takes us out of what would otherwise have been some really interesting filmmaking?

Not that it still isn’t. Riggan may very well be the role of Keaton’s career, and he plays it that way, giving one of the most nuanced and interesting performances in recent memory. I say that as both a reflection of his acting ability on screen and the smart casting of the former comedian turned Batman, as he seemingly pulls from his entire career to make something new and high-concept really soar.

Riggan is a retired superhero actor now trying to make a comeback on Broadway as a director, writer, and actor. Fighting his ego, personified through schizophrenia; the other actors, most notably an outstanding Edward Norton; and even us critics, it’s unclear if Riggan will make it out the other side alive or if the curtain will come down, not only on his career, but his life as well.

Keaton and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu are trying to achieve the same thing here, but where the former succeeds, the latter stumbles. Birdman contains a lot of scenes that brilliantly satirize the entire entertainment industry. Neither film nor theater are safe from a script ready to skewer everything we’ve come to love about going to see a story unfold before our eyes. For example, in a moment directly making fun of the audience watching the film at that very moment, an in-costume Birdman stares directly into the camera with explosions happening behind him and practically says “Enough of this philosophical mumbo-jumbo, this is what you really came here to see.” For any poor, unsuspecting sole completely unaware of this film and its ideas, he’s right.

Birdman is a surrealist piece, which will turn away casual audiences right there. It’s daring, unconventional, and often just plain weird. Keeping things in the avian family, it often plays like a far less serious Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky’s melodramatic horror film about artistry shares the heightened sense of reality with Birdman, as well as many of its themes. But Aronofsky’s superior piece never bled into romanticism, which Birdman does.

To go into details would be heading into spoiler territory, but what I can say safely is that after a biting critique on artists and how their work is received, it sells out in a moment toward the end that puts importance in something that betrays the basic expression of an artist. Suddenly, the film feels as schizophrenic as it’s main character.

Luckily, this betrayal doesn’t have much of an impact on Riggan’s own personal resolution. But it is enough to take Birdman down from the brilliant meditation it could have been to the slightly messier film that it is. It features outstanding performances all around and has a style that, while pervasive, will wow the true film junkies. For most films, that would be enough. To some degree, it is. But the groundwork is there for more, and that’s where I can’t help but feel some disappointment. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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