In the arts, fame can be incredibly brittle as many hit the heights of stardom to then fade away quickly, never to be spoken of again. Artistic merit and validation is therefore vitally important for those that ply their trade in the creative industries whether it be film, music or theatre. Black comedy drama ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu explores this theme through fictional actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who makes a publicised comeback in adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway production, writing, producing and directing for the stage. Best known for his role as Birdman in a blockbuster superhero series, Thomson hopes to shed the mainstream association for theatrical credibility. Assisted by his loyal lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his dysfunctional daughter Sam (Emma Stone), will his change of direction leave a lasting legacy or is he destined to be nothing more than a flash-in-the-pan?
A shaky cam follows Riggan around for a lot of the film, giving the impression of one continuous tracking shot. This helps create a fantastically frenetic energy that flows throughout, accompanied by a drums-laden soundtrack that never misses a beat. The script is spiking and satirical, and very often hilarious, giving a sharp social commentary on the pomposity of the industry and the people that inhabit it. As the show gets underway onstage, the character studies deepen off of it following the introduction of method actor Mike Shiner who clashes with Riggan. Scenes involving the two are among the film’s strongest moments as their dialogue bounces off one another with brilliant rhythm. Shiner’s friendship with Sam also serves as an effective subplot as they take to the theatre roof to philosophise on the highs and lows of showbiz.
The style of the film can at times be a lot to take in due to the chaotic cinematography and editing, as well as the wistful fantasy tangents. The strength of the acting keeps the aims and concepts grounded even with the characters aren’t. Michael Keaton is perfectly cast as Riggan, due to the obvious comparisons to his own career – he is arguably most associated with his nineties portrayal of Batman. The schizophrenic nature of the performance is handled tremendously as he is haunted by hallucinations of his most famous incarnation. Whilst Norton and Stone almost steal the show completely with their excellent screen relationship, stellar support also comes in the way of Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough, completing a cast that really do their bit to fit the bill.
‘Birdman’ is rightfully tipped for awards success and we may see life imitating art come the ceremonies. Iñárritu goes against the grain of trends and reboots, intelligently telling a story which surrounds the oldest traditions of performance art but which is laced with digital media and pop culture references. In doing so, he has created something which feels very unique and original, in both its visual style and subject matter. For me, it fully deserves the credit it will receive and could ironically reignite the career of its leading man.
See the trailer: