Press "Enter" to skip to content

Review: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Premise: An actor (Michael Keaton) who was once the star of a popular superhero franchise directs and stars in a Broadway production with the goal of reinventing himself as a serious artist.

What Works: Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has typically made very serious movies and his better known titles, such as 21 Grams, Biutiful, and Babel, tend to be very cerebral and deal with heavy social and political themes. With Birdman, Iñárritu is still serious but he allows himself to have a little fun while also posing interesting questions about filmmaking, the relationship between art and commerce, and the identities of creative people. This is a very timely movie and Birdman addresses a question that contemporary filmmakers and critics have wrestled with: can superhero movies be art? More broadly, the film asks whether or not big budget Hollywood spectacles should be considered artistic expression or merely corporate products that serve as escapist distractions for the masses. The answer to that question is not so simple. Birdman sends up pretentions to artistry in ways that recall show business satires like Sullivan’s Travels. However, unlike Preston Struges’ 1941 film, Birdman does not necessarily validate spectacle or high art. Instead the movie applies a more complicated view on things and ties up the artistry with the identity of the artist. It’s quickly established that Michael Keaton’s character is haunted by his Birdman identity, which speaks to him through voiceover, insisting that he get back in the costume and regain his popularity. The actor is mounting this theatrical production in order to finally break away from his superhero identity but his overtures toward the ideals of integrity and honesty are really a facade in a quest for personal glory. In this way, Birdman has quite a lot in common with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan as it questions what is real and authentic and the way involvement in the arts can overtake our sense of reality. This film has several great performances in it, primarily from Michael Keaton in the lead role. Keaton was always known for his energetic performances in movies like Beetlejuice and The Paper and he’s able to do that here as a man who is pushed to the threshold of sanity. Birdman co-stars Edward Norton as a problematic stage actor and Norton takes the familiar role of a pompous thespian and turns it into something fresh. The film also features Emma Stone as the rehabilitated ex-junkie daughter of Keaton’s character and Stone distinguishes herself by being both an antagonist and one of the few voices of reason amid all of the backstage madness. 

What Doesn’t: Show business satires always run the risk of becoming too self-indulgent, with filmmakers seen to be stroking their own ego or pandering to their peers. Birdman maintains its integrity and the filmmakers send up aspects of moviemaking, theater, and acting without being too inside-baseball. However, this isn’t necessarily the movie that audiences might expect. Viewers who go into Birdman anticipating an outright parody of superhero movies or of Hollywood filmmaking in general may be confused. The movie is frequently bizarre; those qualities distinguish Birdman but they will also potentially alienate mainstream viewers. Narratively the movie is a bit messy with some of the supporting players and subplots. Early on it is revealed that Keaton’s character has impregnated one of his female co-stars but this is presented as just another headache complicating the production. The picture also introduces a subplot between two actresses played by Emmanuel Lubezki and Naomi Watts. These subplots are not fleshed out but they do add to the escalating chaos behind the scenes, which is their purpose in the film.

Bottom Line: Birdman is an extremely well made picture with some very strong performances. The movie is odd but it’s also very intelligent and ribs show business with a sardonic sense of humor.

Episode: #519 (November 23, 2014)