Rating:BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.
Birdman might feel fresh and exciting, but it’s all been done before. That isn’t a critiscm though when the predecessor is Fellini’s 8½, the 60s pinnacle of Italian Neo-Realism and one of the most important films ever made. This is arguably filmmaking at it’s most pure, and impossible to ape; it either works completely or it feels fake and pretentious. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film goes all in and it’s an utter joy. Actually, it’s much more fun and accessible than Fellini’s intensely personal film.
In fact the script makes it feel more personal for Michael Keaton. It’s a superb performance anyway, but it could really be his ego on show; it’s almost awkward to watch. Birdman? Of course they mean Batman and there’s also his casual jealousy of Robert Downey Jr., superhero movies in general and his inability to use social networking. ‘Meta’ is so cool and modern, isn’t it? Yawn. Don’t let this put you off though because it’s what adds to the realism. The story is now, in our world, and Keaton has never been better, the dialogue-heavy role playing to his strengths, giving him more emotional room than he’s ever had before. This isn’t some (deserved) Oscar-baiting, navel-gazing turn either. Much as he has demons to battle and you empathise with the seriousness of him risking everything on a play while trying to deal with his ego, he’s never allowed to take himself too seriously. For one thing the voice of Birdman (Keaton again) taunts him and for another the brilliant Edward Norton is a complete arsehole, undermining Keaton at every opportunity to hilarious effect.
The film itself contradicts him as well, batting along at a terrific pace. With no discernible editing the camera roams the theatre corridors, closely following the cast and capturing the mood of a play rather than a film. It gives no time to establishing a plot, instead starting with Keaton floating in his dressing room before he goes to a rehearsal scene (which in turn demonstrates a deft script that seamlessly blends roles within roles). It ventures outside rarely (memorably so when Keaton gets locked out in his underpants!) and scenes pass with no regard for time in between. It’s a masterpiece of editing and makes for an exhilarating experience, especially when it plays with your perception too; purposefully predictable in one moment, throwing a curve-ball in the next.
Easy as it is to focus on Keaton’s blistering performance, this like any theatre production is a cast effort. As well as Norton, standouts include Emma Stone and Naomi Watts, at her best probably since Mulholland Drive, with Zach Galifianakis in an effective part as Keaton’s long-suffering agent.
Birdman is vibrant and confidently ambitious. It’s classic film nerd Realism with a punchy, modern twist and makes for an interesting companion to Black Swan, another bird themed theatre story! It’s thoroughly entertaining and we’re unlikely to see anything quite like it for some time.
Much as I love cinema there is little real originality these days. Audiences want formula (which Birdman himself demonstrates at one point, teasing Keaton with a fantasy set-piece that surely his audience would prefer) and attempts to deviate from the predictable become just that. There’s nothing wrong with assured, classical filmmaking, in fact I embrace it, but it’s reassuring to see someone like Alejandro pushing the boundaries of what is typically acceptable and succeeding so completely.