BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virture of Ignorance) - **** (119 minutes)

Tuesday October 28, 2014
One often hears about actors declining certain roles for fear of being pigeonholed into a specific character or genre for the rest of their careers.  Usually these are performers who have established themselves in successful (and sometimes not so successful) franchise films replete with sequel after sequel.  Those who chose to repeat themselves, either due to financial gain or popular pressures or comfort level, at some point will come to the realization that, to prove themselves worthy to themselves and the world, they must tackle roles and genres late in their lives long after their signature character has faded from the theater marquees. 
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) made his mark in the 80's playing Birdman.  Now in his 60's, his ego and career have blazingly crashed to earth - like the meteor depicted falling through the sky that opens the movie.  Shift to the rear view of Riggan as he hovers above the floor in lotus position meditating in his St. James Theater dressing room as he converses with his alto-ego Birdman voice discussing his current state of affairs.  We soon learn that he is attempting to jump start his profession by directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of  a Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". 
It is the day before previews begin and during the dress rehearsal an unexpected accident leaves the production without one of its major players.   Enter the co-star's (Naomi Watts) boyfriend as a replacement:  loose cannon egomaniac Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) -  whose immediate infusion of energy and talent might just increase the possibility the play and Riggan become a critical and popular success.

However, Riggan must deal with more drama and neurotic characters swirling around him than the play itself which only serves to further enhance his insecurities.  There is his girlfriend and second co-star, Laura (Adrian Riseborough) who announces she's pregnant.  There is his estranged impish daughter Laura (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab who is Riggan's reluctant personal assistant.  There is Riggan's best friend and producer, Jake (comic actor Zach Galifianakis in an excellent against type straight role) who is frantic on keeping the play on course when Riggan threatens to quit after that aforementioned accident.  There is Riggan's ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) hovering around the proceedings who still loves the star while clearly wearing her emotions on her sleeve.  There is the supercilious New York Times drama critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsey Duncan) who has the power to close a play overnight and who has utter disdain for the lead.   And then there is Shiner, whose method-acting and narcissism continuously threaten the production's success both on and off the stage.

Acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) is known for somber dark dramas virtually absent of any humor.  However, here he and his co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, have created a biting meta satire on a par with Academy Award winner Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant script for Sidney Lumet's 1976's Network.  The theater, Hollywood, insecurity, the search for fame and celebrity, narcissism, social media:  these are just a few of the topics granted equal reference and ridicule.  Not to mention the myriad of inside jokes that repeated viewings are a must in order to savor them all.   

Iñárritu's selection of Keaton as Birdman is nothing short of brilliant.  His role here is a wink towards Keaton's Batman from 1989 and 1992 which began the onslaught of comic strip films that continue to this day.  And, although Keaton has appeared in numerous films since, his roles have been largely unremarkable - until now.  Keaton's incredible range struggling with reality and the fantasy of Birdman and his superpowers (which culminates in an eye-popping fantasy sequence in the third reel) puts him as a front-runner for an Oscar.

Each of the supporting players are excellent and I would not be surprised if Ed Norton appears on the Best Supporting list come January.  Also, Stone and Duncan both deliver memorable soliloquys that are distinctly Oscar caliber. 

One "character" gets a special mention:  the camera of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  Six time AA nominated (including for The New World, Children of Men and The Tree of Life) and fresh off his Oscar for last years Gravity, Lubezki is in line to win his second.  His use of long uninterrupted tracking shots (along with seamless editing by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione) gives the impression the movie was shot in one continuous take.  This is a technical marvel that will make you feel that you are part of the action as it swirls in and around the nooks and crannies of the St. James Theater without interruption for most of the film.  Add to this an incessant drumming soundtrack by the great jazz musician Antonio Sanchez whose cadences serve to connect the unfolding craziness on the screen.  

Birdman receives my four star rating after it passed my overnight four-star-test when I woke up the following morning and immediately started thinking about this film.  It is clearly the best movie I've seen this year.

UPCOMING:  The Stephen Hawking biopic "The Theory of Everything"
(l to r) Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shiner (Edward
Norton) prepare to duke it out backstage of the St. James Theater 

 Riggan and daughter Sam (Emma Stone) having a heart-to-heart conversation
Riggan, co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) try and stop Riggan from quitting