Film Review: Fascinating ‘Birdman’ Flies But Doesn’t Soar

Birdman20“The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then – that’s it. Don’t hang around.” – Billy Wilder

Alejandro González Iñárritu is nothing if not very earnest in his storytelling – Biutiful, Babel and 21 Grams are more than enough proof of that. And his piercingly funny-angry comedy-drama Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is certainly that – exhaustively so as it turns out when its 119 minutes are done. But while this fascinating bird does fly it ultimately doesn’t soar thanks to a third act where the real ending is preceded by flightless fowls.

Birdman27Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, playing his first lead role in a feature since 2008’s The Merry Gentleman) is a washed-up Hollywood actor who once played the superhero Birdman in a highly successful movie series (yes, the comparison to Batman is obvious, though not autobiographical) before abruptly leaving the franchise 20 years ago in search of something better. Now as his career lingers on death watch this Don Quixote of the acting profession (hence the movie’s subtitle) hopes to revitalize it by directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver‘s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on the Broadway stage at the St. James Theatre.

The play is produced by Riggan’s long-suffering best friend/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and stars Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and her fellow actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is understandably anxious that her long-awaited Broadway debut go well. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone, who among other roles was part of the The Amazing Spider-Man franchise – is there a pattern here?), a recovering drug addict, is uneasily onboard as Riggan’s assistant, and he has refinanced the house belonging to his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) to fund the play.

Birdman2An accident brings insufferable (but bankable) method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, who had his own superhero-on-film experience in The Incredible Hulk) into the cast; Shiner, who apparently confuses acting with being, insists on drinking real gin on stage, leading to the disruption of a preview when he’s handed water instead. Laura thinks she might be pregnant and a vicious New York Times critic named Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) is out to ruin Thomson in print, while he constantly hears Birdman’s gruff voice mocking his every move as Shiner and his daughter get it on; no wonder Thomson wants to just fly away from it all.

What makes this All About Eve-crossbred-with-a-little-Black Swan film mostly click is a perfectly cast ensemble deftly handling the syncopated beats of a darkly funny script by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo. This may be the best role of Keaton’s career, and the same is true for Galifianakis; Norton, Watts, Stone, Riseborough, Ryan and Duncan are in top form with their parts as well.

Birdman25The wonderful illusion of tight, seamless looks-like-one-take cinematography owes a nod to the talents of DP Emmanuel Lubezki (Oscar winner for Gravity) as well as editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione (the latter won an Academy Award for editing Traffic). The dizzying mix of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, Rachmaninoff’s Second and Mahler’s Ninth along with Antonio Sanchez‘s relentless drum score is a plus too.

But Birdman has its faults, including but not limited to an unrealistic jab at the sometimes understandably disparaged criticism profession: Dickinson, who wouldn’t be waiting until opening night to see a Broadway show for review (Times critics, among others in New York, go during the previews), more relevantly wouldn’t be telling a director-actor that she’s going to “destroy” his show before she’s even seen it if she valued her job (and the idea that any reviewer could doom a Broadway play with a pan went out with Frank Rich, if not before). And much more importantly, the feature doesn’t follow Wilder’s wise dictum about ending a movie quoted above; just when you think things are tied up (or have achieved final flight), another scene greets us as if to say, “We want to make sure you get it.”

Birdman11Well, to borrow again from Wilder, who said he got it from his mentor Ernst Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” Birdman has so much going for it, but respecting an audience’s ability to understand the ultimate destination of its flight pattern would have made this movie truly soar.

Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, opens in Nashville on Friday exclusively at The Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.) with a special advance screening at 10 p.m. Thursday; click here for showtimes and to buy tickets. This 119-minute film is rated R by the MPAA for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence. For more information on the film click here to visit its official website.

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*Photos by Alison Rosa and video clips courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).