Now Playing: Michael Keaton soars in "Birdman"

Director Alejandro Gonz
Crosscut archive image.


Director Alejandro Gonz

It’s difficult to resist the bird metaphors when reviewing Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. So I won’t even try. The film soars. It glides and swoops. It rises and dips. It flaps its wings and squawks. It preens and struts. It also lays an egg, but only in the epilogue; and even then it’s still an egg worth cracking open to see what’s inside.

Birdman is easily the most inventive film of the year, and once it snatches you in its beak, it will be hard to shake loose.

Michael Keaton stars as a one-time superstar actor who made a series of box-office juggernauts in which he played a bird-like avenger, cementing his rep as a thinking man’s superhero. But his career quickly dwindled to a few cameos in good films, and a 15-year run in schlock. Now he finds himself in recharge, or desperation mode, depending on whether or not you think it’s a good idea for a Hollywood actor to make his Off Broadway debut in a self-penned adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, an idea that’s got fool’s gold written all over it.

Except for the part about the play, I could have been describing Keaton’s own filmography, from his brief blip on the blockbuster radar in the first two Batman films to a small role as a cop in Jackie Brown to a string of forgettable pictures such as Jack Frost, White Noise and, my personal fav, Herbie Fully Loaded. Only the names have been changed in Birdman, which may seem like a wearying fable about fame and failure, but is actually a fleet, funny and daring meta-commentary on the self-lacerating insecurities that stalk actors like a flock of buzzards.

You wouldn’t think Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu had a film like this in him. His previous movies, Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros, were not known for their side-splitting hilarity. But hold those pictures up to Birdman and you’ll see the same pretension-be-damned experimentation with structure, the same brutal mood swings from light to dark, the same electrifying camerawork. Iñárritu, for all his wildly imaginative recklessness, is also a control freak. You get the sense that, for a movie that plays as if the whole thing was one long, extended take, he had every sneaky edit mapped out before a single frame  was shot.

Crosscut archive image.Keaton (left) is brilliant, alternately unhinged and intensely focused, barely holding on to his sanity while cradling the fragile egos of his female supporting cast (Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough), and fencing with the titanic narcissism of his male co-star, played with manic unpredictability by Edward Norton. Their jousting makes for the funniest and most alarming moments in the film, although nothing in the movie can top the sequence in which Keaton, in mid-performance, finds himself locked out of the theater in his underwear. It is truly one of those scenes that is, as they say, “worth the price of admission.”

What’s remarkable about Birdman, despite the film’s dark flirtations with suicide, impotence, ruined marriages and venal theater critics, is how alive it is to the frothy spirits of creative risk-taking. The backstage conflicts have a thrilling sense of impending doom. Keaton’s willingness to make himself look ridiculous insures an enormous amount of sympathy for the actor. Iñárritu’s bold, Icarus-like departures from reality, his peripatetic camera, his use of a solo drum score that sounds like a body forever tumbling down a flight of stairs, speaks to his impassioned zeal for moviemaking; his belief that a film can incarnate our humanity and sorrow and need for self-expression. 

Birdman might flame out in the final few minutes, but before that, it was flying straight into the sun.

This article first appeared in Rustin Thompson's blog, The Restless Critic


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About the Authors & Contributors

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson is a filmmaker, film critic and indie radio deejay. He enjoys strong coffee, red wine, IPAs and his wife and grown children. He is comfortable with the fact he will never be rich, but grows petulant if he thinks too much about it.