Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Posted on October 23, 2014 at 5:59 pm

michael-keaton-birdman (1)Filmed as though it was almost entirely one long, stunning, audacious, breathless and breathtaking shot, “Birdman” (subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) explodes with ideas and visions, adopting the language of dreams to explore and upend the very idea of storytelling.

Michael Keaton plays a character in superficial ways like Keaton himself. He is Riggan, an actor who has undertaken at least three impossible tasks at once. He has adapted the acclaimed but notoriously difficult and difficult to adapt Raymond Carver collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, into a Broadway play. The translation of stories whose art is in the spareness and lyricism of the prose into a theatrical production is at best ambitious, at worst impossible. But Riggan is not just the writer. He is also the director and star. He has put his last dime into the show. If it fails, he loses everything. And there is more. His estranged and angry daughter Sam (Emma Stone), just out of rehab, is working as his assistant so he can keep an eye on her and perhaps repair their relationship. One of the actresses (Andrea Riseborough), may be pregnant with his child. And a piece of equipment has just fallen on the head of one of the actors. They are about to go into previews and he cannot perform.

Riggan and Jake, his best friend/lawyer/producer (a slimmed down and pitch-perfect Zach Galifianakis), throw out (real-life) names of possible actor replacements. The best of their generation: Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey, Jr — but they are all in Hollywood playing superheroes. Riggan knows something about that. He played a superhero called Birdman in a series of wildly popular films. He had money, fame, success, and the kind of power all of that brings. But now he has an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), an angry daughter, a possible new child on the way, and he is risking his future on the longest of longshots, a serious play in the high-pressure world of Broadway theater, between the vicious barbs of dyspeptic, despotic critics and audiences who would rather be at the latest musical based on a movie.

Riggan and Jake argue about what to do next.  The understudy? No! “It’s not like the perfect actor is just going to knock on the door!”  Cue knock on the door.  It is Lesley, the non-possibly pregnant actress in the show (Naomi Watts), volunteering her boyfriend, Michael (Edward Norton), who is available (he just got fired or quit or both) and wants to do it.  He is a Broadway darling, a Serious Actor with a lot of fans.  Jake is ecstatic.  This will sell a lot of tickets.

Michael shows up with the script already memorized and able to give a dazzling performance that pushes Riggan to do his best. But Michael is also narcissistic and arrogant. His relationship with Lesley is deteriorating and he is hitting on Sam. Worse, he is sending her mixed signals, making her feel even more insecure and putting her recovery at risk. Riggan is under even more pressure externally and internally as a voice — his Birdman persona? His younger self? His future self? — is urging him, taunting him, distracting him.

It is a high wire act, the endless, dreamlike take festooned with farce-style slamming doors, fantasy interludes with monsters and explosions, sharp satire, poignant drama, and across the board performances of superb precision. As sheer, no-net, bravura filmmaking it is pure wonder, and if it raises more questions than it answers, at least they are the big questions of meaning, identity, work, love, art, and, of course, superheroes.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, explicit sexual references and situation, gun violence, drinking, smoking, and drug use.

Family discussion: How much of what we see in this film is “real” and how can you tell? What do you think is happening in the final scene?

If you like this, try: “All That Jazz” and Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories”

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Comedy Drama Fantasy