An amazing cast, led by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, turn Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) into an instant classic—a film like no other.
Pulling out all of the technological stops, director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) made this movie as if it were one seamless shot. The movie doesn’t happen in real time; it passes through locations, with hours and even days going by between the tricky transitions. For example, the camera will track forward from a hallway to a backstage area, and while mere seconds go by, 12 hours in the film’s world will pass. It’s extraordinary.
Keaton plays Riggan, an actor on his last legs. In his heyday, Riggan made millions as the title character in the superhero blockbuster Birdman and its sequels. At the height of his popularity, he walked away in hopes of finding more creatively fulfilling projects.
However, his other film pursuits have not panned out, and he finds himself in previews of a Broadway play—a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that he is financing, directing and starring in. The stakes are high, and Riggan is showing signs of mentally coming apart.
When one of his actors takes a falling stage light to the head (in what may or may not have been an accident), Riggan casts hotshot actor Mike (Norton) in a crucial leading role beside him. Mike is certified box-office gold, and his addition should help make the play a hit. Problem is, Mike is also a method actor who uses real booze onstage, and isn’t afraid to break character and challenge Riggan before an audience.
The whole situation causes Riggan to take breaks from reality. He converses with his superhero alter ego (also played by Keaton), who is not at all pleased with the state of Riggan’s existence. The ego has taken some hits; the money has dried up; the place in which he currently resides “smells like balls.” Riggan has moments when he believes he may have telekinetic powers, but in reality, he’s probably just throwing crap around his dressing room.
The moments in which Keaton and Norton square off are most likely the best-acted scenes you will see in a movie this year. Obviously, Keaton’s role is semi-autobiographical, in that he was once Batman and ruler of the box office. Norton’s role seems to be somewhat based in his own history, in that he is a notorious perfectionist. These realities help make their clashes seem quite authentic, and even a little scary. You get a true sense that Keaton and Norton are really pissed at each another, and any punches thrown are the real thing. Both actors should be solid contenders in the Oscar race.
As Riggan’s rehabbing drug-addict daughter, Emma Stone makes her own bid for Oscar contention with her compelling, intense work. She has a speech in this movie in which she eviscerates Keaton’s character, and it’s a real stunner.
Zach Galifianakis has shown dramatic chops in the past, and as Riggan’s agent and lawyer, he again shows that he is far more than a laugh-getter. Also worth noting are Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan in small but important roles. This is basically the best cast of 2014.
The movie works on so many levels. It’s an intense drama, but it’s very funny and satiric. It’s also an interesting take on a man’s decent into insanity, while being a scathing indictment of celebrity. It’s even a pitch-perfect depiction of the rigors of putting on a play.
You have never seen anything like Birdman, and I doubt you will ever see anything like it again.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342), the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).