MOVIE REVIEW: “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

Birdman Poster “Birdman” is a unique if not altogether exceptional piece of film-making from Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Brilliantly cast, “Birdman” stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging Hollywood has-been action star who became an icon as “Birdman”, a fictionalized comic book hero recreated for the screen. Thomson leaves the West Coast to make a name for himself on Broadway where he adapts, directs and stars in his own production. He of course faces the obvious challenges: he’s not from New York, he’s a screen actor – not a stage actor – and he’s constantly wrestling with being upstaged by his co-star, Mike, played by the ever-adaptive Edward Norton. But this summary of the plot hardly does justice to this wily film.

     Thomson (Keaton) is presented as a man less at odds with the world and more at odds with himself and his own sense of self-worth. In his effort to prove he’s got what it takes he enters into an all or nothing gamble, refinancing one of his few remaining assets – a home set-aside for his daughter, Sam  – to raise the money for the completion of his Broadway debut. To ratchet up the pressure, Sam has recently left rehab after being treated for drug abuse and is struggling to find a place in her father’s quest for meaning.

     As with many films about the entertainment industry, “Birdman” is filled with inside jokes likely to be lost to some extent on those outside the “biz.” But the liberal use of “insider” treats and winks aren’t employed as a substitute for a truly engrossing story. “Birdman” is less about showbiz and more about the quintessential American obsession with being “somebody” – a subject that virtually everyone who ever dreamed of “making it” will relate to regardless of their career field.

     The film deftly moves from drum tight scenes where Thomson appears to be on the verge of a breakdown as he argues with the degrading voice in his own mind – the voice of “Birdman” – to sudden shifts into dry comic relief al la Thomson’s attorney (Zach Galifianakis). These schizophrenic outbursts are as tantalizing as they are tormenting as Thomson also seems to become imbued with telekinetic powers when confronted by his alter-ego.

     Keaton’s performance is so engrossing that those of us in the audience felt less like voyeurs watching a pitiful man descend into the depths of mental illness as we did watching Russell Crowe’s  character, John Nash, unravel in “A Beautiful Mind” (Howard, 2001); rather, we travel with Thomson through familiar ups and downs as he faces financial troubles, worries as a parent, challenges to his identity and his professional integrity as well as his own private neuroses that leave him teetering on the verge. All of this tension is masterfully tempered by the warmth of Keaton’s delivery and his character’s genuine passion for his art.

     Edited as though filmed in one continuous shot, the camera work is distinct and far more nuanced than the nauseating style of handheld cinematography utilized for “The Hunger Games”. This cinematography, combined with incredible performances, tantalizing story-telling and the masterfully dynamic if not ever so slightly chaotic film score by Antonio Sanchez is the perfect accent to this very New York film.

     If a weakness is to be found, it is in the film’s “message”: at first glance, “Birdman” is a very serious critique of the American obsession with status and the egoism evoked by the cultural injunction to achieve fame at costs. But a deeper look reveals a sort of vindication of the very egoistic culture that drives Thomson so hard and reifies his “Birdman” persona until he suffers a split personality that destroys his relationships and drives him to outbursts of violence. Nevertheless, the film is a satisfying and a near brilliant piece of movie-making boasting a great cast and remarkable performances.

By J.D. Thomason