Friday, October 17, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Film: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Starring: Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice), Emma Stone (The Help) and Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom)

Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu (Babel)

U.S. Release: October 17th, 2014 (Limited Release - Rated R)

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 119 minutes

The 23rd annual Philadelphia Film Festival kicked off last night in a less than grand fashion. After an unexpected last-minute issue with the projector, a venue change was quickly arranged and delayed the evening by nearly an hour and a half. Set to jump-start the festival was Alejandro G. Inarritu's latest cinematic achievement, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Inarritu has taken the industry by storm with prior successes such as 21 Grams, Babel and the foreign hit Biutiful, so needless to say the buzz was swirling for his upcoming release. Unfortunately, for me, the expectations soared high above the finished product.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a has-been actor who once ruled the entertainment world as the lead man behind the iconic superhero franchise, Birdman. Since his time atop the proverbial mountain, Riggan has faded from the limelight but is making one final attempt to reclaim past glory with the premier of his Broadway play. However, Riggan struggles to balance his overwhelming ego with a volatile new castmate (played by Edward Norton) and a crumbling family life.

Films like Birdman make for easy critiques. Guaranteed to be a polarizing watch, one that my gut believes the general public will find disappointing on many levels, Alejandro G. Inarritu's new title leaves the door open for massive amounts of discussion. On one hand, the technical accomplishments surrounding Birdman are nothing short of immaculate. Intended to feel like an uncut and unedited film, which is by no means an easy task, Inarritu's effort requires fully committed performances from all of its actors. And believe me, there is no shortage of brilliant tour de force performances here. It all begins with the feature's leading star, Michael Keaton, who shines brightest. Keaton feels like an all-around perfect fit for the role, only to be complemented by other towering performances from co-stars Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. Thankfully, each and every character is delivered with a soulful turn that ultimately keeps an otherwise damaged film afloat.

For all of Birdman's technical conquests and wonderfully acted efforts, Inarritu's film is a falsely advertised and tiresome tale. Being pitched as a dark comedy, the laughs are far too sparse to justify such a label. And for anyone expecting an action-fueled superhero-eque type of movie, you couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, Birdman straddles the line of surrealism in order to tell the unoriginal story of a man's obsession with reclaiming the spotlight and, more importantly, leaving behind a legacy. After nearly two hours of the same old song and dance, the film blows past a golden opportunity to gift wrap its message and regrettably overextends its finale in an irritating fashion.

Birdman is well deserving of its praises as a spectacular piece of filmmaking, further elevated by grand performances from a long list of gifted actors. However, Inarritu's common history of poor pacing and prolonged endings leaves a bitter mark on the film. While I entered the Philadelphia Film Festival with the belief that Birdman was a viable contender for Best Picture, I certainly have my doubts now.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B


  1. Good review David. Absolutely loved this movie. It moved like how you think a Broadway play, but with all the right amount of heart, fun, and humor to go along with it.

  2. Thank you Dan. I didn't "love" the film but I can certainly understand people's high praises for Birdman. The acting and directing were both amazing which generally translates to a recipe for success.

  3. I think your review is off the mark; perhaps you were put off by the festival's delay and technical difficulties. I agree with Dan, I absolutely loved the movie, down to the actors and jazzy score. Everything was just astounding (to me).
    I also feel you missed the point when you mentioned the film was about reclaiming the spotlight and leaving behind a legacy. Riggan Thompson NEVER made a movie that made him feel fulfilled, he loved the spotlight and yes he'd enjoy that feeling again. This was more about making true art, something worthwhile for one last "hoorah," and all the flavors of emotions that go with a life of failures. Did you even see the scene with the real bullets in the gun?

  4. *** SPOILER ALERT ***

    I completely understand your argument, but I had difficulty, at times, trying to dissect Riggan's character. I think we both agree he wanted to do something that warranted respect, but I always felt that his motivation for doing so was to regain the public's adoration, albeit with more of an artistic approach than his previous Birdman films.

    As for "the jazzy score", I liked it at first, but felt that it grew a little tiresome as the plot barely progressed and the running time continued to mount. Birdman certainly didn't elicit any rampant emotions in me and I can honestly say I have very little motivation to ever watch it again.

    On a side note, Riggan felt more like a person unable to produce "true art", even if he wanted desperately to make something memorable. The most beautifully committed thing he could of done was take his life at the end of the performance, and he can't even do that right. This mocking tone of his character made me feel less emotional about Riggan's goals, if anything.

    But as always, I enjoy the debate and thank you for reading, Thomas. Comment any time!

    1. Nice point of Riggan not even able to correctly commit suicide! You're right, it did seem more like an accident that his production was critically acclaimed. Perhaps that was a kernel in the message: you must be willing to die for your art?