Alejandro González Iñárritu is known for his strange but powerful, and often gloomy, films like (Biutiful, Babel, and 21 Grams) that descend into the truly miserable, so it was quite the surprise when it was announced he was making a comedy with Michael Keaton as a has-been Hollywood star mounting a Broadway play to revive his career. And while it would be harsh to call Keaton a has-been, it has been quite some time since he’s been in the limelight. But Iñárritu hasn’t changed that much, his peering into the human soul has only morphed into a twisted satire, one that stands amongst his best work.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is not only the story of Riggan Thompson’s (Keaton) struggle with a crucial moment in his life, but Iñárritu’s ability to make it one continuous shot. Of course this isn’t literally true, but it’s rigorously shot to have a continuous camera without cuts or blackouts, a decision that intensifies the stressful days leading up to Thompson’s debut of the adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which he wrote along with directing and starring in the production.
Having what may well be the onset of a nervous breakdown, he begins hearing Birdman and experiencing strange phenomenon just as tragedy strikes his co-star and he brings in notorious acting bad boy Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who just happens to be dating the female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts).
Thompson’s daughter is also around, acting as his assistant after being recently released from rehab. Shiner has the talent and understanding of the material that Thompson is looking for, but he comes at a cost. Like Keaton, it’s also hard not to see a slice of the real Norton who, like Shiner, has a reputation for taking his art to heart, if it were, and being difficult on set. Not just a student of the method style of acting, both Norton and Shiner like to put their stamp on the work beyond just reciting lines, which, in the case of Shiner, causes an obvious rift with Thompson. While Shiner is just trying to understand who he is off stage, Thompson is just trying to not have everything slip through his fingers.
It’s a bizarre journey that’s often fun and amusing, especially when Zach Galifianakis seems to be bursting at the seams as Thompsons producer, lawyer, and best friend Jake. But Iñárritu doesn’t dispel with what can only be described as the touch of a master of the art form. Always able to craft something that has his distinct brand on it, it’s the first time he’s moved past what’s been easy for him to lean on in the past — long and, ultimately, distressing stories that interweave larger themes, and sometimes other stories, into grand statements of humanity. It’s not a complete reinvention, but he takes his penchant for grandeur and shapes it into something that’s fun to watch instead of heartbreaking.
Of course, it’s Keaton that’s the lynchpin of this new direction and who, like Thompson’s deepest desires, proves his status as one of the greater actors of his generation. For many that may never have been in question, but it has been quite some time — if ever — that he’s been given a worthy role to manifest that. It’s a role, and film, that many will be talking about for years, and is apt to go down as one his, and Iñárritu’s, best. A ride that needs to be experienced to be, hopefully, understood, it’s one that is ripe for revisiting again and again.
Rating: 5 out of 5