Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a complex film that needs multiple viewings to fully appreciate its wonderful richness. Movies In Focus reviewed the film on its cinema release but this is a fresh take on the dvd release of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s modern masterpiece.
Alejandro González Iñárritu has delivered a masterful film in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The multilayered multi-award winner is the freshest film to come out of Hollywood in years. How it squeezed though the studio system (particularly a studio owned by Rupert Murdoch) is anybody’s guess. Iñárritu takes multiple potshots at the blockbuster mentality of film, showing how superheroes have infiltrated cinema and squeezed out anything which challenges audiences. True artists struggle to produce something meaningful in a climate where explosions and destruction are the order of the day. It’s a high energy piece that scores high on technical credits and which also has first-rate performances from an impressive cast (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone).
Birdman is much more than an inside look at Hollywood, however the story resonates way beyond that. It’s about the human struggle to stay relevant, to feel that you’ve achieved something in your life – when you stand back and evaluate what you have achieved and realise that it doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. You don’t have to be an an actor or live in Hollywood to understand how this affects the psyche.
Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is an actor unhappy that his career has been overshadowed by Birdman, the comic-book character he played in a trilogy of movies in 1980s and 1990s. Thomson declined the opportunity to star in a fourth instalment because he was worried that the character would over-shadow his career. A quarter of a century later and the Birdman still looms large over Thomson and he’s struggling to be taken seriously as an actor. This is even more cutting because Thomson now sees actors like Robert Downey Jr embracing the genre and earning huge sums of money. Thomson has adapted the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for the stage, directing and starring-in the production. He’s put his own money into the play and he’s banking on its critical and financial success to reignite his career and validate his work as an artist.
Ego is the central concept of Birdman. Thomson’s ego is driving him to stage the play – he’s setup his own downfall. He’s wealthy enough not to need to work but he wants to create something that people will like. He wants to be applauded and lauded and he’s risked everything to achieve this. The Birdman speaks to Thomson and it urges him to turn his back on art and run straight into the arms of commercialism. Thomson struggles with this, after all, as Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner states, ’popularity Is the slutty cousin of prestige’.
Birdman’s driving force is Michael Keaton. The parallels between Keaton and Thomson are obvious yet superficial and it would be easy (and lazy) to say that he’s just playing himself. The actor is superb, delivering the performance of his career in Iñárritu’s film. He hits a range of acting notes that few could achieve in short notice. He is able to turn from comedy to drama in an instant without ever making it obvious that he’s acting. Lesser actors would have made the character a comedic buffoon who sees his world crumble around him or made him too serious, a man with one singular obsession that neglects his family and ignores those around him. Keaton covers a range of emotions and makes Thomson a fully rounded character. He makes him human.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a deeply rich film that challenges audience expectations and genre conventions. It’s a drama, a comedy and a tragedy that tackles concepts like art, creativity, belief and fear. Above all however it’s about wanting to be loved – but what do we talk about when we talk about love?
The DVD of Birdman comes with a great stills gallery and a tremendous 31 minute documentary on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s modern classic. Wonderful behind-the-scenes footage and input from the cast and crew make this a great companion piece to the film.