Birdman opens with a shot of a rocket heading towards earth.It cuts quick to a scene of a group of jellyfish washed up on a beach. Next we get Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) levitating, crossed legged, 4 feet off the floor in his dressing room. A gruff and garbled voice over hits like cool glass of water. This explains the whole movie and if you are intrigued then sit back and get ready for one of the best films of 2014. If this opening sounds weird, disjointed and confusing (which it is) you might as well head on over to theater #3 and catch a screening of Dracula Untold, because Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ain’t a movie for you.
20 plus years ago Riggan made the first blockbuster superhero movie, The Birdman. A fictional crime fighter that closely mimics Keaton’s own career as Batman (makes me wonder if the role was written specifically for him) and happens to be the high point of his career. Washed up and in the middle of a mental break down, Riggan has recently turned down a role in the fourth Birdman film to write, direct and star in a broadway production of the classic play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” . Riggan has put everything he has into this production (mentally, financially and physically) and the 3 days leading up to the Saturday night premiere the production is a shit storm of chaos. One of Riggan’s principal cast is seriously injured, his replacement is a method actor that makes Daniel Day Lewis look like a soap opera actor (Edward Norton in one of his greatest roles!). Not to mention his recovering junkie daughter/assistant (Emma Stone) sulks around to constantly remind him what a failure of a father he was and his co-star/girlfriend just might be pregnant. Sounds bat shit crazy? Well it is and only made worse by the voice that only Riggan can hear and the fact that Riggan is slowly convincing himself that he has telekinetic super powers.
Keaton is in Oscar territory here. I have always been a fan of Keaton. Being born in the 80’s puts me right at the age to actually believe Keaton was really Batman and thus he receives a life time pass in everything he does. BUT!! He does not need to cash that pass in here. As mentioned before Riggan’s career closely mimics Keaton’s own career and I imagine it was what attracted him to the role. A role that Keaton fully embraces and leaves nothing on the table. It’s clear to us, the audience, that Riggan is having a mental breakdown and is crying for help, but a life time of isolating the people around him makes it almost impossible for anyone to reach out and offer the help he needs. Maybe it isn’t help. Maybe living his life according to box office tolls and tabloid headlines have slowly structure an insane measure of self-worth and Riggan no longer can cope with living without being told it’s worth living. Even when he is recorded running through time square in his underwear after being locked out of the theater and becomes a Youtube hit ( which we all know is more important than anything…right…). Riggan stares blankly at the phone screen playing the video as his daughter explains that this is power. The look on his face is the same my father has when I tried to explain what Tumbler is. Riggan wants no part of this world, but seems to not be able to live without its validation.
Besides Michael Keaton delivering a performance of a lifetime, the entire cast is knocking it out of the park. Edward Norton (who always brings his A-game) is in top form and his method acting borders on sociopathic. He also delivers some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Not sure if this is initial or some of his “methods” are so forceful and over the top, that laughter was my only response. Speaking of laughs, funny man Zach Galifianakis plays it straight here as Riggan’s laywer/friend who is struggling to keep Riggan on course. It was great to see Zach do something besides an awkward man-child and he really has his acting chops down. I can’t finish this review without talking about Emma Stone (who I am a fan of). Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s estranged daughter he his trying to reconnect with after a lifetime of neglect. Sam is a recovering addict and Stone fully embodies the role and looks the part. No makeup, dirty hair and emaciated, Sam is the link to a world of hashtags and snapchats that Riggan no longer understands. Birdman is not just Keaton’s vehicle, but he is the engine that keeps this locomotive barreling forward.
Birdman is one of my favorite theater experiences of the year. Alejandro González Iñárritu (writer/director) who is known for his dramas (Babel, 21 Grams) has given us the greatest comedy of year. Also the best drama of the year. It also features some of the best special effects of the year. With the coolest score (primarily jazz percussion ) and best performances. I guess it’s safe (and easier) to say that Birdman or ( The Unexpected Virtue of Ingnorance) is the best movie of the year.