Movie Reviews & Interviews from Washington

‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ Review: Starring Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts & Emma Stone

“Why don’t I have any self-respect?” –Lesley
“You’re an actress honey.” –Laura

Stylish, technically magnificent, interesting, real and ambitious, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) will undoubtedly be one of the most talked about films of the year and of years to come.

Birdman tells the story of once-famous actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who is struggling to find his relevance in Hollywood while also trying to mend his relationship with his in-and-out of rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone). Riggan is getting ready for his Broadway debut where he is footing the production and starring in the play that he both wrote and directed.

Riggan and his hard-working stage manager and confidant Jake (Zach Galifianakis) also have to manage all of the supporting actors in the production including egotistical big-time actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who was only recently cast in the show, less than confident leading lady and Mike’s girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Riggan’s friend with benefits costar, who may also be pregnant.

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As opening night nears, Riggan’s insecurities and confidence are tested. The Birdman, the famous superhero-like character he once played, is frequently looming over his shoulder, occupying his thoughts and playing into his fantasies. Soon Riggan has trouble figuring out what is reality and what is fantasy.

Michael Keaton, in a stunning and career revitalizing performance that is worthy of an Oscar nomination, is exceptional as Riggan and the Birdman. It’s hard not to think about Batman or the weird coincidence that Riggan’s story is similar to Keaton’s, but Keaton seems to understand Riggan’s inner thoughts and the reasoning behind all of his decisions. He has a sweet chemistry with Emma Stone and with his ex-wife in the film played by Amy Ryan. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is where Keaton is talking to Ryan in the dressing room on how he has failed as a father. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

The entire ensemble is pitch perfect and memorable but the other standout star is Emma Stone. Straying away from her usual comedic roles and as the brainy Gwen Stacy in the recent Amazing Spider-Man films, Stone is on point as Riggan’s daughter who also doubles as his assistant. Her monologue to her father about her frustration with him and why no one cares about his work is both shocking and brilliant at the same time.

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From a technical standpoint, Birdman is astonishing. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (2010’s Biutiful) uses sweeping camera motions to capture the setting so that it appears that Birdman is done all in one shot. Award-winning cinematographer Emmauelle Lubezki (2013’s Gravity) was easily the right choice for a film like this. He’s known for his long and uncut one-shots and the close-ups on the actors’ faces.

Birdman is bound to be misunderstood at times and will spark some controversy over its untied up ending, but that’s the main reason it is one of the most thought-provoking films of the year. It’s also the reason for its imperfect storytelling and that at times the film tends to drag if only for a bit.

Birdman is a fascinating story and rings true for several Hollywood actors working today. Though the very end of the film loses its way a bit, Keaton’s performance is mesmerizing and González Iñárritu makes a leap forward in filmmaking.

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