USA/Canada | 2014 | Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Logline: A once successful movie superhero seeks serious consideration with a Broadway play, but is harassed and ridiculed in the days leading up to the play’s opening.
Brilliant, inspired, refreshing, witty. They’re just labels. So fucking what? It’s just my opinion, maybe backed up by a few comparisons. That’s what I do. I’m a critic. I share my two cents worth on a movie, and maybe you’ll see it, maybe you won’t. In the case of this blackly comic stab in fame’s dark heart, this delightfully vindictive shadow cast across the stage of recognition and success, the labels I throw at it are genuine and heartfelt. I do hope you see The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, or Birdman, as it's more commonly known. This is easily one of the highlights of my year’s ciné calendar, and could very well take out top prize. The bar has been raised high. But not Icarus high.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has seen better days. He’s pushing sixty and he’s taken on an ambitious project: directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymand Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His previous acting incarnation was a superhero, Birdman, which was huge on the big screen, four movies worth. But that was twenty years ago. Now Riggan has more flab than feathers. His cocky superhero alter ego is pecking his mind from deep within his psyche. He’s got a replacement actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who is threatening to sink the production. His ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), is loitering with intent, his lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), drops a bombshell, and his grumpy rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is none-to-happy in the production assistant’s role. All he needs now is a theatre critic with her pen up her ass. Cue: Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), on the end barstool, she’ll do nicely, thank you.
Along with fellow Mexican co-writers Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo, and American Alaxander Dinelaris, Iñárritu has fashioned an extraordinarily rich and vibrant portrait and study. It is a look at the fragility of the self, and a plucking of the machinations behind the fear of failure, and the hunger for respect. It is a satire of celebrity and the cult of personality. Birdman is a tale of spiritual evolution, a rollercoaster ride through the narrow, and well-worn corridors of theatre production and artistic endeavour. It is painted in a magic realism that gives its tinsel a particularly memorable sheen.
At the risk of sounding like a confounded cliché, this is the role Michael Keaton was born to play. But Keaton doesn’t chew the scenery, nor does he hog the limelight. This is almost an ensemble piece, with Keaton’s troubled super-anti-hero, quietly nudging everyone out of the way. Top props go to Emma Stone’s wily chip-on-her-dad’s-shoulder, probably her best performance to date. Ed Norton’s nicotine-slapped arrogance is a dark delight, and in contrast Naomi Watts, as anxious, fellow thespian, Lesley, provides the light relief. Zach Galifianakis’s camp Jake is the icing on the cake.
The superb performances aside, my hat is thrown off to Iñárritu and his loyal cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubeski, who’ve really achieved something astounding. The camerawork (made to look like one very, very long take) is amazing. The structure of the narrative – both visually and symbolically – is a cinematic joy to behold.
My first review of the year, and it’s an instant cult classic, bristling with quotes, searing with truths, floating on fantasy, finally set free by the rapture that is one’s soul torn asunder by love and acceptance. It’s an acquired taste, like eggs on toast with vegemite, and it doesn’t really matter how you interpret the ending, but that you feel it. Birdman is the triumphant gratification of human frailty.
Exit stage left.