Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is visually, intellectually, and emotionally stunning. The real and surreal are blended together in such a seamless fashion that you aren’t quite sure if the protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is day dreaming, hallucinating, or has special powers. The camera floats through rooms, down long hallways, and up stairwells with smooth rapidity between tight shots orbiting the various characters in a scene as though with a handy cam, accentuating the quick pace of the film and making the audience feel like they are in the scenes.
Riggan is a washed up actor best known for having played “Birdman” a film adaptation of a comic book super hero, some decades ago. He’s now trying to regain his fame, self-worth, and legitimacy by writing, producing, directing, and starring in a theatrical adaptation of a novel. The author of the novel having been a driving force in Riggan taking on acting as a career. He appears to have a split personality, with the voice of Birdman speaking in his head during moments of self-doubt, and is surrounded by a cast of characters each troubled in their own right.
Ed Norton plays narcissistic Broadway actor Mike Shiner who, to his credit, saves Riggan’s play by taking over a secondary role from an injured actor (who is suing Riggan for said injury). Shiner has a fraught relationship with Naomi Watts‘ character, Lesley; an actress with a poor self image and a dream of being on broadway. Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s lawyer and close friend Jake who knows just what lies need to be blurted out in order to pull Riggan together at every last moment. Emma Stone brilliantly plays Riggan’s daughter Sam who is fresh out of rehab with a cynical world view and a deep loathing towards her father, who has hired her as his personal assistant. A third of the way into the film, Stone brings the house down with a fiery monologue trying to force perspective onto her father’s self centered world view.
In the foreground, the film deals predominantly with existential themes of self-worth, the value we derive from the approval of others, as well as what it means to “put it all on the line.” There’s also a great deal of commentary on mental health and suicide. You spend the second half of the film wringing your hands thinking that Riggan or his daughter are about to kill themselves. Power is another theme that plays out in the film. The power of giving a compliment, not giving a compliment, having a social media presence, a fist fight, sharing a personal thought, embarrassing moments, and attention grabbing actions.
While it is a serious film dealing with serious topics and people whose lives are grossly dysfunctional; it maintains a certain whit, lightness, and at times comedic whimsy. There are moments where Riggan is Birdman. Heavy, dark moments are quickly reversed into lighter more farcical ones. Crazy things happen to the characters that you would expect only to see in slapstick comedies. People break into rage filled monologues that seem more at home framed by the velvet curtains than projected onto the big screen. The pace never allows you enough time to process your own feelings over a scene before moving onto the next, leaving you in a constant state of awe. Even the ending, which initially presents as an expected downer is made ambiguous and potentially joyous by the twist of seeing it through the lens of a character that the film has spent two hours discrediting, so that the final outcome is entirely up to each audience member to decide for themselves.
In short, writer, director, producer Alejandro González Iñárritu creates a brilliant must see film full of truly phenomenal acting and important questions about life. It’s the kind of film after which you and a friend simply must grab coffee or dinner for a long philosophical discussion.