By Tressa Eckerman, Contributor
There is a hysterical, unhinged hilarity to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and the whole film is held together by perhaps the finest performance of the year.
Michael Keaton, always an actor of great range and comedic skill, plays Riggan. He’s a former a-lister famous for his role as Birdman, a masked superhero. He did three films then walked away terrified of being typecast. It didn’t work.
Poor Riggan, not exactly emotionally stable to begin with, finds he will always be Birdman. If you’re familiar with Keaton’s real life career, a good chunk of this should sound familiar. For a whole generation, he will always be tied to Batman and/or Beetlejuice.
Riggan, in an attempt to “do something that matters,” is adapting, directing and co-starring in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver novel. He’s running out of money, and he has his alter ego Birdman talking to him.
The rehearsals are a disaster. New actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) increases ticket sales and gets publicity, but he’s a pretentious method actor who drags a tanning bed into the theater because his character has to be a “red neck.”
His volatile co-star and girlfriend might be pregnant and his recently rehabbed daughter Sam (Emma Stone) hates him and has a thing for Mike. That’s just the beginning. Birdman is hard to explain, hard to pin down.
Inarritu has always been a fascinating director, but this is his real masterpiece. Birdman, besides being a compelling and darkly funny satire, is a piece of fabulous artwork. It is dizzyingly inventive and perhaps the most unique film ever made.
The audience is never quite sure what is real and what is fantasy. Riggan frequently imagines his life as a superhero movie, characters appear and reappear in the middle of scenes. Those same scenes blend together, and time seems to be a relative thing to the plot.
The majority of the story takes place in the cramped dark backstage of the theater that seems to be closing in on Riggan. Add in thumbing jazzy drumbeats, it’s like you’re inside Riggan’s fractured mind.
Adding to the tone is Inarritu’s decision to film the move in seemingly one take. We move down the narrow hallways, slip in and out of doorways and dressing rooms seamlessly.
Birdman, while a fascinating look at the stage hubris and desperation, is also bitterly funny. There are moments that are so absurd, so over the top that the only thing you can do is laugh. Like the fight between Mike and Riggan halfway through the film.
Ed Norton has done many things as an actor, but fight Michael Keaton while wearing a flowered speedo and sunburnt is probably one we’ll never see again. Everyone involved in this film is perfection.
That begins with Keaton. He’s always been a wonderful and underrated actor, but this is one of those rare performances that never feels false and has endless layers. He is manic, funny, full of heart and insecure. In one scene, he can be arrogant and dismissive; the next he is contemplative and full of regrets.
“You keep confusing love for admiration,” his ex-wife tells him in one scene.
Riggan is trying despertly to reclaim some lost idealized version of himself. He carries around a note Raymond Carver wrote him when he was a young actor, lashes out at his daughter when she tells him just how selfish he is being. Keaton drops into the role so completely that it is breathtaking.
2014 has been a fine year for film, and Birdman is easily the greatest. It is hard to even explain how utterly brilliant this film is. No film has ever been made like this. It is passionate, unique, funny and fierce all bolstered by Keaton’s finest performance.
Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance) is now playing at Film Streams.