Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) slowly unravels like a sweater caught on a nail. Birdman unspools relentlessly through a continuous maze of backstage corridors and claustrophobic dressing rooms of a Broadway theatre that could easily stand in for the mythological labyrinth of Minos. Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomas, who is Birdman; who may have or may not have been Icarus. Birdman reads like a Fable. Birdman felt more like a performance than a movie. While watching Birdman, I didn’t want it to end, right up until it did.
Note: at no point in the film does Michael Keaton utter the phrase “I’m Birdman.”
He does however say something along those lines in 1989 in Tim Burton’s Batman, when he played one of the first incarnations of our modern box-office super hero. His costars Edward Norton and Emma Stone are also no strangers to the comic book franchise both starring in reincarnations of The Hulk and The Amazing Spiderman respectively. Our fascination with super heroes is at an all time high and Birdman takes a sideways glance at the phenomenon. It also brushes up against: social media, the cult of celebrity, ageism, art versus commerce, magic realism, ego tripping at the gates of hell and the validity of criticism.
This last point has gotten under the skin of a small number of pop culture critics who may have unknowingly taken it a little too personally. They retaliated with words like “show-offy” and “pretentious”. The film is a well executed artful take on the continuous tracking shot that helps to establish the stress one experiences with the staging of any creative endeavor when you are working within a narrow timeline. If doing something well with innovation and intent is “show-offy” than so be it. As far as pretension goes, it is actually a theme the filmmaker addresses head-on and like most adult conversations you can actually discuss an idea without automatically falling victim to it. Birdman is an allusion to the idea of art as social criticism but demystifies the art of criticizing itself. (How’s that for pretentious?)
Birdman is a drumbeat. Birdman is great performances; every actor brings their A game. Birdman is a comedy and Birdman is a tragedy; sometimes within the same scene. Birdman can turn on a dime. Birdman is a movie you should go see. In the end, Birdman is many things, and ‘a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing’.
Related: The Grand Budapest Hotel Review