By Jenny Peters
Is it art imitating life? Or life imitating art? When it comes to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brilliant “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” it really doesn’t matter. What matters is how fascinating his film is to watch.
“Birdman” tells the story of Riggan, a once world-famous film actor whose career is totally in the trash when we meet him. Masterfully brought to life by Michael Keaton, Riggan’s claim to fame was as the Birdman, an action hero whose movie appearances raked in millions. But once Riggan walked away from that film franchise (and money train), his career never really recovered and his fame slipped. Now he’s used his own cash to mount a show on Broadway, in the hopes of becoming a respected star once again.
But there are some problems along the way, to put it mildly. As his show moves shakily toward opening night, Riggan, along with his manager and co-producer (played with a restrained yet caustic verve by Zack Galifianakis) desperately struggle to keep it all on track, despite a few major setbacks and seriously wacky experiences along the way.
The art-imitating-life part, if it wasn’t obvious already, is the fact that more than 20 years ago Michael Keaton played “Batman,” in the first two films that created that long-enduring action film franchise. And in recent years, the 63-year-old thespian’s career hasn’t exactly been an A-list ride (he’s been part of films like “Robocop” and “Need for Speed,” among others).
And while Keaton has never hit the Great White Way in his real-life career, with Iñárritu’s inspired writing and directing of “Birdman” he has found a spectacular vehicle for his acting talents. With equal parts of hollow-eyed desperation, confident cockiness and off-the-deep-end craziness, Keaton portrays Riggan as a man whose passion to succeed knows no boundaries. He’s willing to walk all over his daughter/personal assistant – played with a pitch-perfect edge of psychosis by Emma Stone – and treat his fellow thespians with disdain, all to achieve that overweening goal of climbing to the top and grabbing fame yet again.
Using a cinéma verité style, Iñárritu brings us right into the action inside Broadway’s St. James Theatre, where much of the story occurs. Using a handheld camera and stringing together a series of impossibly long single-shot moments, he creates an immediacy that makes the action move at an incredible pace. There’s plenty of mystical realism thrown in, too, which will leave you wondering just how much of this tale of ambition, failure, desire and defeat is real or imaginary.
“Birdman” is filled with pathos and laughter and numerous tour de force performances (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts do world-class work here, as do Keaton and Stone) and is an incredible exploration of how the desire for fame and success can be a cancer, overshadowing the more real and satisfying elements of life. It’s one of 2014’s best films and may just be the big winner come Oscar time. Don’t miss it.
Stars: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Studio/Official Site: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/birdman/
Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures