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Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)

Birdman is
audacious, original, and bold. It’s also inscrutable, off-putting, and
overlong. To be sure, there is much to admire in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s mad
jumble of a movie, which takes place in and around the St. James Theatre in
Manhattan and unfolds as if it were one long, continuous take. This visual equivalent
of an author’s stream-of-consciousness narration is impressive, and sometimes
arresting, but it can also be exhausting. The same can be said of the
protagonist, a wildly insecure actor named Riggan Thomson. (His peculiar moniker
is emblematic of the film as a whole. Riggan?)
Michael Keaton delivers a bravura performance as a once-successful Hollywood
star, about to make his Broadway debut, who is desperate for approval. Most
fans still associate him with the superhero character called Birdman he played
years ago: now he wants to prove himself as an actor, once and for all. He’s
even directing the play; an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

Nothing about the film is conventional, which is often to
its credit. But at the outset, I was distracted by Antonio Sanchez’s loud,
propulsive drum-solo score. As the film went on I acclimated, somewhat, and even
found it appropriate to the material, but like many other aspects of the film,
it required considerable effort.

Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander
Dinelaris, and Armando Bo also infuse their high-pitched film with elements
of mysticism and the supernatural. Some may interpret these moments—or indeed,
the entire narrative—as Keaton’s fever-dream. In any case, they constitute one
more unusual ingredient that sets Birdman
apart. 

At the heart of this dramatic maelstrom is a gallery of
sharply-etched performances. Keaton leads the way, and he is matched by Zach
Galifianakis, in an atypically serious role as the actor’s producer and
long-suffering best friend; Edward Norton, as an actor who joins the troupe at
the last minute and proves to be a loose cannon, on and offstage; Naomi Watts,
as his loyal leading lady; and, in the juiciest part of her career to date,
Emma Stone, as Keaton’s daughter, who’s just out of rehab and working for her
father. One key scene she shares with Norton on the roof of the theater could
prove to be a career game-changer for the actress. Other key female roles are
admirably filled by three of the brightest talents on the scene: Amy Ryan,
Andrea Riseborough, and Lindsay Duncan.

Towering above them all is Keaton, in a virtuoso turn the
likes of which he hasn’t had in ages. (Think of the unforgettable performance
he gave decades ago in Beetlejuice:
this has the same incredible intensity.) There’s just one problem: I’m not sure
why we’re supposed to care about this isolated, self-absorbed, unfathomable character.

Birdman has a lot
going for it, and certainly shows off the talents of its director and star, but
it’s all over the place—visually, tonally, emotionally. I admire many of its
components but just can’t hop on the bandwagon with critics who have deemed it
brilliant.  

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