Making ‘Best Movie of the Year’ declarations in January is fraught with all kinds of potential embarrassment and credibility questions, but I am certain that only something pretty darn remarkable could possibly upstage Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) for the right to be declared as such for 2015. This is about as good as movies get, with all the ingredients blended together perfectly by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to construct a wonderfully acerbic examination of fame that is philosophical, funny and utterly compelling from beginning to end. From the performances, to the editing (or lack thereof), to the percussive soundtrack; everything works to render Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as a masterfully conceived and executed example of cinematic art.
In a wonderful performance that, given how long it has been since he has been afforded such an opportunity, lends considerable weight to the oft-touted notion that there are more great actors than there are great roles, Michael Keaton is terrific as Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood actor desperate to break free from the shackles of a film franchise that has made him a household name. Wanting to move beyond the Birdman character that made his famous, Thomson has decided to write, direct and star in a Broadway play based on the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film is set in the days leading up to opening night; rehearsals and preview performances and, as such, almost the entire film is set within the claustrophobic labyrinthine corridors, rooms and backstage passages of the St. James Theatre. Of course, art imitating life is very much at play here given the fact that Keaton’s biggest film success until now was his role in Batman, way back in 1992.
Thomson, who may or may not have telekinetic powers, encounters one setback after another, including one of his actors being injured by an errant lighting rig, his girlfriend telling him she is pregnant and a co-star with an ego the size of Texas. Inarritu skewers various elements of arts and celebrity culture, from the press conference at which the various reporters only have interest in Thomson’s Birdman character to the theatre critic who vows to destroy the production via a scathing review even before she has seen it, simply because of Thomson’s background as a Hollywood ‘big shot’. With the ghost of movies past haunting him, a daughter (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab who serves as a constant reminder of his failings as a father and a running battle with an acclaimed stage actor (Edward Norton) who undermines him at every opportunity, Thomson is on the brink of a meltdown and it is left to his manager Jake (Zach Galifinakis) to keep the show on track. Whilst it might seem a somewhat highfalutin concept, it works remarkably well and there are laughs aplenty.
Having already been responsible for great films such as 21 Grams and Babel, this is Inarritu’s best work to date. Filmed on location, the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Gravity) creates a fabulously authentic feel to the spaces in which our various characters inhabit. All the performances are wonderful, with Keaton, Norton and Stone getting strong support from Galifinakis, Andrea Riseborough and Australia’s Naomi Watts, in a welcome return to form after her misguided moll in St. Vincent. Edited seamlessly to suggest one uninterrupted take, the flowing camera movement is fluid and is perfectly executed, following our characters through their various interactions and presenting the theatre almost as a giant maze.
Whilst Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is an intelligent film and tackles some big issues (such as the search for authentic expression in a world in which spectacle is the key currency), it is never at the expense of entertainment, with both Keaton and Norton seemingly taking great delight in referencing their own reputations in their characters. Whilst the screenplay is full of dense monologues that gives each of the performers a moment (or two) to shine, this is very much Keaton’s film and he is superb as a character who, despite numerous flaws and failings, is very easy to like. Unlike anything else we have seen lately, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is philosophical, funny and absolutely fucking fantastic.