Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (USA, 2014)

elfilm-com-birdman-or-the-unexpected-virtue-of-ignorance-413689Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu. This was one of those movies that I had absolutely no idea about going into it, but it won a lot of awards, and that usually means that there’s a ceiling on how interesting, how challenging, how innovative it can really be. I’m sure there are some who would say that the character’s arc is nothing new, another white-hetero-masculine redemption story, and the Oscars always pee their pants at the sight of stuff like that (for starters, The Wrestler, Crazy Heart, the entire career of David O. Russell, etc). But even as I make those comparisons, it’s pretty obvious that this film is quite different from those, and really, it’s quite different from any movie I’ve seen. Here’s where I call it—this movie is a very singular, individual, and overall very impressive movie. Even, for starters, the potentially gimmicky use of single-take (or in this case, simulated single-take) narrative: it’s been done before, notably in Russian Arc, but it’s hardly revelatory to point out that those movies are nothing alike apart from that striking cinematic device. And, yes, I admit it, this is my first Iñárritu, so maybe that goes a long way to account for how “unique” I found it—but I really found this thing to be super unique. What else is like this movie? What else takes the themes it has (as mentioned, not super original, but we can call it “archetypal”, say), and plays them out in this deliriously snappy, brisk-paced, schizophrenically light-hearted, depressive dark comedy that’s really neither dark nor a comedy? And what other movie is as satisfyingly, as intelligently, as harshly critical of the modern star system? I guess in hindsight, it’s not really that surprising that this movie got the Oscar, because, being narcissists, Hollywood people love movies that make a big deal out of how hard it is being a Hollywood person. And the fact that it’s not set in Hollywood, but in a Broadway theatre, is a good twist on it, kind of a fish out of water environment. This main actor, Michael Keaton, is a big-budget Hollywood hack trying to gain artistic legitimacy by going to Broadway—and with a fucking Raymond Carver adaptation of all things. I love the way the characters are formed and the way the actors bring them to life—Keaton’s trademark manic-depressive, borderline joke/serious histrionics are the perfect way to illustrate this guy’s delirious, unreal, three-quarter-life crisis, and Edward Norton is the perfect choice for the egotistical, self-parodying big-budget star who also has theatre chops, the self-important thespian whose dogmatic insistence on “authenticity” plays out with as much integrity as a high school kid who just read a Lee Strasberg article for the first time. I like how the ideas that this movie is playing with are genuinely interesting ideas, genuinely pertinent to the entire world of filmmaking and the people who we spend our whole lives watching, but the film remembers that these ideas are also inherently really funny, and it incorporates that self-important absurdity into the fabric of the movie. I’m not sure where I sit with the subplots, but maybe I’m just mistrustful of subplots in general—the whole thing with Ed Norton and Emma Stone seemed pretty contrived, padding for time, and unfortunately the tremendous talents of Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts (probably the best actor in the whole movie, by sheer talent) felt like token leading lady roles that didn’t super pertain to the core conflict (although Amy Adams certainly did a great job at her role, even if it was totally a supporting role). As mentioned, for all its bells and whistles, this is ultimately The Wrestler, Crazy Heart, True Grit—every other movie about a middle-aged man affirming his value in this society even after he’s “lost it” (although even True Grit had a strong female lead). Whenever this happens, I’m tempted to say that it’s a symptom of something entrenched in the culture, not the cause, but when it comes to that mutually symbiotic relationship between audience and movies, it’s super hard to draw that line. So maybe for that reason, this movie doesn’t deserve a ton of praise, but in a relatively bogged-down quagmire of unoriginal ideas pulled off unoriginally, of lazy CGI, of unreflecting, unaware escapist garbage, this thing kind of shines like gold to someone like me. That sequence where Keaton loses his robe and has to run in his underwear through Times Square amid thousands of mocking fans with iPhones is the kind of big-scale, memorable moment that so many films lack: something that stays with you not just because it contributes to the story, but because it speaks to all of our underlying fears and embarrassing nightmares, and because it’s so damn funny. And I haven’t seen the other Oscar contenders, but I’m guessing that this is a hell of a lot more interesting and full-of-life than the Alan Turing movie (lone genius, misunderstood by a flawed society, what a beautiful mind, etc), or the Stephen Hawking movie (lone genius, afflicted by nature, but overcomes obstacles in order to advance this beautiful society, etc). And yes, I’ll go see more Iñárritu already!

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2 responses to “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (USA, 2014)

  1. Pingback: Whiplash (USA, 2014) | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

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