Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu et al
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts
Michael Keaton delivers a ferocious, Oscar worthy performance in Birdman. And that in itself is a bit of a joke because that’s what his character Riggan desperately wants. Where has Keaton been of late? Exactly. In smaller roles, TV movies, that kind of thing, a comedown from the heady, propped up days of Batman. Riggan, himself an action hero in a comic book blockbuster called Birdman, is washed up, but looking to redeem himself in a bold theatrical adaptation of a Raymond Chandler short story. It’s the anti-action hero move to make, the indie artist, miles away from all that. Twice.
As opening night approaches, however, the strain of being who and what he is, is becoming unbearable. The possibility for failure is real because he’s in some sort of altered state, and he’s expecting too much. While he can’t expect the world to change with an intimate theatrical performance, he’s willing to try. His family life is a mess, and his daughter (Stone) hangs around doing backstage odd jobs to keep an eye on him. She sees how the prospect of the play is undoing him and he’s drinking heavily. She doesn’t spare the jabs to his heart though.
Iñárritu’s surreal sojourn into Riggan head swings wildly between hallucinations and violence to visionary moments as he relives superhero glory by swooping over Manhattan, tossing buses around like dominoes and setting off explosions with his finger. It’s tantalizing, and we want his imaginings to be real, like when the crowds cheer or when he levitates while mediating, but of course, it’s a mind beside itself we’re seeing.
Iñárritu and Keaton jump deep into the Birdman mythos and aftermath that they suggest can be any movie star or superhero’s lot. It’s not a sad cautionary tale; it’s a ballsy, exhilarating Grand Guignol opera all fire and brimstone and the sane people seem lifeless.
There are things much worse than being a former hero, like mental illness and alcoholism and a total loss of faith in oneself. Keaton’s forceful performance creates these realities not with emotion per se but with pure personal power. It’s quite the sensation.
Iñárritu’s stroll down fearsome lane is a coup, a never seen before portrait of a man in distress careening through a huge moment in his life when has a chance to make it all right again. How like us, that he then does nothing to stop the train wreck.