Alejandro González Iñárritu’s
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
The Must-See Film of the Year
By: Ellis Nassour
From the moment Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu took over Times Square and set up shop inside the St. James Theatre in March of last year, you knew something big was in the works. But who expected something as big as the film with the winsome title Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance [Fox Searchlight]. The buzz began, and hasn’t stopped. Now, all sorts of accolades are being thrown about – and deservedly so [however, that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its detractors, and that it may not be for everyone].
The fact that it opened the Venice International Film Festival, where it was in competition for the Golden Lion, and was chosen to close the New York Film Festival, as great a honor as opening it, should have told expectant audiences something. But who expected a masterpiece of filmmaking and acting to the nth degree?
There have been great films this year, including Wes Anderson’s star-laden black comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, released back in January and, hopefully, not forgotten; and there’ll be more top-drawer films as the studios, long-past their summer weekly dump of blockbusters and sequels for the teen set, roll out their best between now and end of year to qualify for awards nominations. However, it will be a surprise if any film garners as many nominations as Birdman. Unfortunately, the Best Acting category is going to be a tough one – well, that is if we lived in a perfect world because as brilliant as Keaton is, Norton delivers a whopper of a performance.
At this point, you might as well give the directing awards to Iñárritu, who co-wrote and co-produced. Anderson created stylish magic with Budapest, but Iñárritu creates almost a new genre. And who expected this from him?
Like all of Iñárritu’s films, Birdman takes an acute look at the human condition as seen through characters walking the tightrope between comedy and pathos, illusion and reality.
"It was time for a comedy, "he laughs. "After you turn 40, what doesn’t scare you isn’t worth doing. And this scared me – in a good way. It was new territory and I was definitely out of my comfort zone."
How true! – considering where he’s coming from. It’s worlds away from his Amores Perros, his 2000 breakthrough feature, set in Mexico, about families dealing with loss, regret, and life’s harsh realities; 21 Grams, his compelling take on a freak
accident that brings three disparate people together; Babel, his four-family drama set in the Moroccan desert; his Mexico segment of September 11; and Biutiful, his drama set in Barcelona about a single father’s chaotic life as he deals crime, a skewered relationship, and diagnosis of cancer.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is certainly a breath of fresh air. It’s a quirky black comedy with some heavy drama. It’s a movie about theater, but it transcends that. It’s bold, drop-dead hilarious at times, fun with all its insider jokes, breathtakingly shot and directed, and has an all around perfect cast – highlighted, of course, by the tour-de-force performances of Michael Keaton [the role of his career] and Edward Norton.
Much of the film takes place onstage and in the empty and audience-filled auditorium of the St. James. Some backstage and all the dressing room sequences were recreated at Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens, to accommodate the handheld steady-cam, crane shots from the ceiling, and shots where walls had to be moved so the camera could move fluidly and furtively. [Some production and post-production services were done in Montreal and Los Angeles.]
[Trivia: note as the film progresses and Riggan’s mental state collapses, the hallway of his dressing room shrinks and expands.]
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a former Hollywood star long past his iconic days of superherodom in a bid to reclaim his past glory by taking a gigantic and emotional taxing leap in his Broadway debut in his four-hander adaptation of Raymond Carver’s little known short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he’s also directing. You might say the one thing he’s not short on is ego. Though it’s never addressed, we probably should assume that the superpowers that Riggan possesses somehow come from – well, who the hell knows…or cares – but he has them.
[There are enough holes in the film to fill a doughnut shop; and that especially goes for how to get from one place to another in Times Square, but it all adds to the fun. Eagle eyes will also notice that although the production onstage brings in a top box office draw, none of the signage is changed to reflect he’s a co-star.]
Also looming over Riggan is his past: The shadow of his Birdman character, a nagging alter ego always putting him down for his high aspirations.
The featured cast includes Emma Stone, as Riggan’s estranged daughter; Naomi Watts [on the heels of her dynamite portrayal of a Russian prostitute in St. Vincent], playing an actress finally making her Broadway debut; Andrea Riseborough as her co-star; and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife.
Then you have, get this: as Riggan’s attorney and agent, Zach Galifianakis, who tosses aside his buffoonery and delivers a tightly-wound and deftly comic performance that proves he’s actually an actor with chops [it’s the type of role that, if Iñárritu hadn’t been daring, would have gone to Jonah Hill] ; and the always-watchable Lindsay Duncan, as a viperous New York Times critic who’s not fond [to put it mildly] of Broadway’s stunt casting of TV and film stars. The only thing missing from her performance is the sound of a cobra hissing. [The scorching scene in the Edison Hotel’s Rum House, where Riggan confronts her in a bit of brown-nosing gone terribly wrong will become a popular and powerful audition piece for acting duos.]
Back onstage, as pressures mount just before the first preview with low ticket sales and a depleted budget, a featured actor (Jeremy Shamos), whom Riggan regrets casting, has a life-threatening freak [or is it?] accident. At the suggestion of his lead actress (Watts) and the urging of his best friend, attorney, and producer (Galifianakis), Riggan anxiously hires Broadway darling Mike Shiner (Norton), who’s ego is skyscraper high and who looks at movie acting as condescending [a tit-for-tat scene about who’s more famous and recognizable, again in the Edison Rum House, is one of the film’s comic highlights]. Needless to say, the two clash immediately, even in front of preview audiences. There’s a riotous moment when Norton gets a bit too carried away in a bedded scene with Watts.
As Riggan preps for his making his lifelong dream come true, he also deals with his co-star girlfriend (Riseborough), his fresh-from-rehab daughter and personal assistant Sam (Stone), as well as his ex-wife (Ryan), who appears every so often to offer encouragement and encouraging a more stabilized relationship with their daughter.
Co-starring alongside the ad fab cast and the St. James Theatre is Emmanuel Lubezki’s almost seamless cinematography, Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione’s editing, and Antonio Sanchez’s spare but pulsating drum score [with the release of Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, it’s the year of the drum].