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"BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)"
(2014) (Michael Keaton, Edward Norton) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Black Comedy: An actor, best known for playing a popular super hero character on the big screen, tries to find credibility and resurrect his career by mounting a dramatic play on Broadway.
PLOT:
Riggan Thomson (MICHAEL KEATON) was once a big star in Hollywood, due to having appeared as the title character in the popular comic book movie franchise "Birdman." But his wild ways led to the end of his marriage to Sylvia (AMY RYAN), while their young adult daughter, Sam (EMMA STONE), has recently gotten out of rehab. And his reluctance to continue appearing in that movie series means work has dried up and he's now mostly broke.

As a result, and with the help of his manager/attorney friend Jake (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS), he's mounting a production of Raymond Carver's short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" where he'll not only star, but also write and direct the adaptation. But there are obstacles and complication along the way, including that his costar and current girlfriend, Laura (ANDREA RISEBOROUGH), thinks she might be pregnant by him, while a falling stage light strikes one of the lead actors on the head and removes him from the production. The other central actress, Lesley (NAOMI WATTS), then learns that method actor Mike Shiner (EDWARD NORTON) -- who just so happens to be her boyfriend -- has recently quit or perhaps been fired from his latest job and is available to take the part.

He steps in and immediately clashes with Riggan, but also pushes him to dig deeper into the material and himself, while also pointing out New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (LINDSAY DUNCAN) as another big obstacle to overcome. But the biggest might just be the voice of Birdman who rattles around inside Riggan's head, filling him with doubt and uncertainty about this endeavor. With opening night approaching, it's unclear if Riggan will be able to deal with everything thrown his way as he tries to find credibility and resurrect his career.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
At one point in the history of entertainment, appearing in movies was the end all, be all of life as a dramatic or comedic performer. Sure, some viewers prefer their shows live on Broadway, and a tremendous amount more watch theirs on television. But being up on the big screen equated to figuratively and literally being bigger than life. And thus movie stars did and still hold a certain cachet over their acting brethren who make a living on the Great White Way or the Boob Tube.

Thus, especially in years past, whenever you'd hear that a movie star was going to be in a TV show or appear on Broadway, common reactions were "Why? "What for?" and "Are they crazy?" After all, doing so seemed at the time like a step down (although nowadays it's happening more and more often). What most people don't realize is that performers desire variety, some need the money, a few want to jump-start stagnant careers, and others feel that they need to prove their serious thespian abilities (via Broadway).

All of that comes into play in the much heralded "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," a movie about a one-time superhero franchise movie actor who wants to do something important and be admired for that, and thus adapts a Raymond Carver work into a Broadway play. The delicious irony, coincidence or whatever you want to call it, is that Michael Keaton is playing that part. Yes, the very man who rose to a next level of movie stardom fame by appearing in the first two Tim Burton "Batman" movies and then famously turned down a highly lucrative offer to don the cape for a third time.

Here, he plays an actor who once inhabited the winged costume of the title character, a gruff-voiced sort who still inhabits Riggan Thomson's head like a nagging, self-doubt inducing Devil on his shoulder. When we first meet Riggan, he's meditating in his low-end theatre dressing room -- while levitating himself off the floor, just one of many moments of strange but often amusing telepathy he exhibits -- with that pesky voice dismissing the place and situation ("How did we end up here?"). His estranged daughter (Emma Stone), straight out of rehab, is his assistant, his co-star girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) might be pregnant, and a replacement actor (Edward Norton) is quite intense in his adherence to method acting.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu -- working from a screenplay he penned with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo -- tackles a number of issues here, both industry-related as well as those concerning the human condition. And the themes at play are numerous, with some rolling along the surface, while others simmer just below that. There are also a number of visual jokes -- such as occasionally seeing the drummer(s) of the near constant jazz score that accentuates and sometimes underlines the story and its developments.

Interestingly enough, the drummer bit also falls under the symbolism, including some odd but intriguing quick shots of one or more marching bands in full gear and action (and that otherwise seemingly have nothing to do with the plot, at least as far as I could tell from just one pass of seeing this nearly two-hour-long offering). It is the sort of pic that pretty much does require at least a second viewing, not only to capture all of those themes and bits of symbolism, but also to try to decipher what the concluding scene means (as it's literally and figuratively up in the air).

What isn't in doubt is the fantastic cinematography courtesy of DP Emmanuel Lubezki who employs a near continuous shot throughout the film (with an unknown amount of actual cuts -- presumably across dark scenes much like Alfred Hitchcock used in the somewhat similarly shot "Rope" but likely also elsewhere now that visual effects can be used to create the appearance of seamlessness). Expect an Oscar nomination and likely win for him, while kudos obviously have to go out to Iñárritu and whoever else helped plan out and choreograph those fluid scenes (where any flubbed line or technical issue would require a really long second take).

Iñárritu and his co-writers will also likely score noms of their own. But it's Keaton who will probably get the most award love, all but certainly nabbing his first Oscar nomination. He perfectly embodies an actor trying to escape from the long shadow of his past box office success and signature role. The script gives him various memorable bits of dialogue, including when he puts a snooty film critic (Lindsay Duncan) in her place. Supporting work from the rest of the cast -- that includes Zach Galifianakis playing it straight as the protagonist's attorney, manager and friend -- is solid across the board.

While it might not be for everyone's tastes, those who love movies about Hollywood, Broadway or just the desire to do something worthwhile with one's life will likely eat this up. And for those who enjoy trying to decipher nebulous endings and figure out how all of the bits and pieces play into that, as well as what everything ultimately means when added up, will find all of this quite alluring and highly entertaining. I certainly did, and thus "Birdman" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed October 20, 2014 / Posted October 24, 2014


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