Cinematic Releases: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The long awaited Birdman hits theaters today. Find out what Andrew thought.

"Everything is just so....umm...
bright in this liquor store."
There’s a moment late in Mexican writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s surreal, highly theatrical black comedy of the New York theater scene, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which speaks volumes to the director’s contempt for his detractors.  An aged, Pauline Kael-esque theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), engages actor and director Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) over the validity of his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, saying she aims to destroy the play’s success without having seen or read it.  The beady eyed misanthrope’s snide remarks are broadcast for our disdain and for Keaton’s troubled has-been actor struggling to climb back into cultural consciousness to retort.  Funny as Keaton’s delivery is, the scene took me out of the film and I couldn’t help but imagine Iñárritu sitting across from his critics with folded arms and a bitter smirk. 

For years, Iñárritu has been remaking his 2000 Spanish ensemble drama Amores Perros into 21 Grams, Babel, and eventually Biutiful.  Not unlike the early work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry and Ten come to mind), Iñárritu’s body of work, though skillfully acted and directed, in theory is something of a sham.  Soon viewers (myself included, though still an admirer of Amores Perros) saw the emperor with no clothes and began to turn on Iñárritu.  Backed into a corner, now here is his version of Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, a self-reflexive satire of the film/theater industry, and in particular the outsiders’ perception of it.  As a changeover for Iñárritu, it’s a bold, atypical breath of fresh air that manages to delight and infuriate in equal measure. 

An ensemble piece shining a searchlight behind the scenes on the claustrophobic inner canals of the New York theater, Birdman both plays on Keaton’s Batman celebrity while presenting a craggy, disheveled Keaton we’ve never seen before.  Equally surprising are Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s production manager, providing a dramatic counterpoint to Keaton’s comic timing, and Emma Stone’s startling transformation as Riggan’s burnout daughter.  While Edward Norton and Naomi Watts provide familiar performances, almost resting on their laurels, Birdman has the unexpected virtue of chameleonic acting from those we wouldn’t ordinarily see it from.

"Polly wants a cracker."
When we aren’t looking at Birdman’s cast in a whole new way, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki design the film to resemble an elongated, unbroken tracking shot ala Martin Scorsese meets Gaspar Noe, whom Iñárritu spares no expense in paying loving homage to.  Besides dreamy rooftop scenes shared by Stone and Norton, there’s a scene where Riggan enters a liquor shop decorated with multicolored lights that clearly evokes Noe’s Enter the Void.  Virtually every shot is adorned with intricate CGI enhancements to give Birdman both an immediate reality before sneakily drifting into artifice as Riggan imagines his action hero alter ego of his better days flying through the air and moving inanimate objects with his mind.  It’s a dazzling treat of a film to behold visually.  Sonically, at first, Iñárritu’s stark, atonal drum and cymbals soundtrack irritates to no end.  But eventually, as the conflicts between Riggan’s cast and crew grow more heated, it too begins to amplify the tension before being contrasted with sweeping orchestral wonderment intended to parody superhero soundtrack tropes. 

Is Birdman worth seeing in theaters?  Absolutely, as it represents a new chapter in the once monotonous and predictable director’s life.  Though it doesn’t always work and Iñárritu’s open addressing of his critics will undoubtedly irritate some viewers, there really isn’t anything quite like Birdman out there, a shape shifting comedy about the gulf between artistic and commercial success as well as whether or not an actor’s life in our memory will keep or kill them.

-Andrew Kotwicki