Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ***

Is it worth $10? Yes 

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” offers a unique visual experience rarely seen in movies today, and that’s a great thing. But the film is also a jumbled mess that struggles to make sense of itself, a modern “8 ½” seemingly done in one take, full of verve and signifying nothing. 

Throughout there are grand overtures to the beauty of artistry, the dangers of celebrity, the value of entertainment, the nastiness of show business, the integrity of criticism, and more. And yet it all feels fleeting, like a whirlwind of platitudes that consume the narrative and always merely swirl, never funneling into something impactful. 

The central character is Riggan Thomson (an excellent Michael Keaton), an aging actor who years ago starred as the “Birdman” in a superhero trilogy and now struggles to stay relevant (“Batman” star Keaton insists there are few parallels between himself and the character – see Did you know? below). Riggan has put the last of his money into a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and it isn’t going well. If this fails, and with it goes his last opportunity to prove he’s a “real” actor, Riggan will (from his perspective) lose everything.

Keaton’s performance is the highlight of the film, but a stellar ensemble surrounds him. Naomi Watts plays an actress looking to prove herself on Broadway, Edward Norton is a proven actor with unpredictable behavior, Zach Galifianakis is very good as Riggan’s lawyer/producer, Emma Stone plays Riggan’s daughter, Amy Ryan is Riggan’s ex-wife, and Andrea Riseborough plays an actress in love with Riggan.

From its inception director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) knew they wanted the film to look like it was shot in one take, even though the timeline very clearly spans a few days. They’ve succeeded, with clever hidden edits every 10-15 minutes creating a seamless flow of action. This visual approach challenged the actors from a technical standpoint, forcing them to make sure they hit their marks and memorize their lines. If they don’t, a 10-minute scene could be ruined at the nine-minute point, forcing everyone to start over. For the viewer the illusion of one continuous shot creates a sense of immediacy that’s instantly captivating.

The title – “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” – is loaded with implications. Note how it’s not a title followed by a colon with a subtitle. Instead we have the word “or,” implying that what follows is an alternate name for the movie, and sure enough the latter is more descriptive of the content than the former. Ignorance, after all, allows for purer innocence and greater ease of enjoyment. The more we know, this suggests, the less we’re able to enjoy because we see and sense derivations of other, better work. Riggan, to his detriment, has been around too long and is too jaded to find joy in his work, and the pressure is making him mad. 

Although it does many things well, I’m convinced Inarritu and his team are sitting somewhere, laughing at the fools rambling about the film’s intellectual prowess and complex narrative. I don’t think they want the film to clearly make sense. Nothing in the story is solved in a black and white way, so it’s fitting the ending would also lack clarity. This has the byproduct of meaning the answers to the questions posed are personal for the viewer, not universal. This “draw your own conclusion” finale will be frustrating for many (myself included). Still, the journey is worthwhile, even if you don’t like the destination. 

Did you know? 

Despite the easy and obvious public perception, Keaton maintains: “In terms of the parallels, I’ve never related less to a character than Riggan.”