Despite having acted in films for over two decades, Michael Keaton has never developed into an A-list star. He’s certainly had success and he’s even starred in some truly iconic films, but he’s never become a household name. That’s precisely why his casting as Riggan Thomson in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is so perfect; Keaton and Thomson have had similar careers with only sporadic successes. Keaton portrays Thomson with an almost self-aware commentary on his own acting career. He’s always interesting to watch, but the script never delves below surface level in its exploration of fame, success and Hollywood. But even though the script may be mediocre, fantastic direction and powerful performances elevate Birdman into a mostly solid film. It may not be one of the best films of the year like some are claiming it to be, but it is a nice watch, especially on a technical level.

Thomson had starred in a massively successful superhero trilogy, in which he played the character of Birdman. He eventually walked away from the franchise and has been unable to find success ever since. But now he’s writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What we Talk About when we Talk About Love. Thomson is hoping this could be his career comeback, but it’s not going to be easy. His daughter (Emma Stone) is a recovering drug addict, his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) announces that she’s pregnant and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the newest actor in the play, is extremely difficult to work with. All of this is happening with the success of Birdman hanging over Thomson’s head. Will his play mark the beginning of a comeback or will it end up being the death of his career?

Writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu seems to think that he’s tapping into some profound messages regarding the state of Hollywood, but all the themes that the script brings up are straightforward and fairly obvious. It certainly didn’t take an entire film to tell us that Hollywood always seems to be moving onto the next best thing. The script also tries to be funny, but it rarely ever is. There’s so much crude humor present that feels out of place in the context of the film and what Iñárritu is trying to do. There are numerous references to testicles and there’s even a scene where a character gets an erection on stage. Jokes like these may work in raunchy comedies, but for them to be present in a film that is clearly aspiring to be seen as profound feels strange. Perhaps the fact that the script was written by a whopping four writers (Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) can account for some of its weaknesses.

But even when the script underwhelms, Iñárritu’s direction remains on point. Nearly the entire film is shot to give the impression of it being one continuous take. I’m still not entirely sure what purpose this is supposed to serve, but it’s stylistically great and it makes the film more interesting than it probably would have been otherwise. A few minor problems arise from shooting the film this way, such as the viewer continuously searching for where they secretly place a cut within a scene, but the long takes are great to watch and they ultimately help the film more than hurt it. What’s most impressive about the film from a technical standpoint is the gorgeous cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki is one of my favorite cinematographers working today and the look that he gives Birdman is nothing short of astounding. A lot of the film takes place inside the St. James Theatre on Broadway and Lubezki allows each new scene to feel fresh and exciting. Lighting and set design are manipulated to give each room in the theater a completely unique feeling and sensibility. What might be most impressive is that the scenes are shot using a single camera, but Lubezki still manages to create beautiful images without relying on a multiple camera setup. This is easily one of 2014’s most beautiful films.

Having starred in two Batman movies over 20 years ago, Keaton may have been perfectly cast in the film, but great casting doesn’t always equal a great performance. So kudos to Keaton, who gives one of the best performances of his career as Thomson. Thomson seems to be going through a midlife crisis and Keaton makes us feels his characters tragedy and anxiety in equal measure. Every scene he shares with Amy Ryan is touching and haunting, these two actors sharing a believable chemistry together. He’s also quite funny in the film and a sequence where he’s forced to run through the street in nothing but his underwear is one of the film’s highlights. The supporting cast is also great, with Norton, Stone and Naomi Watts giving particularly strong performances. Norton seems to be playing a hyperbolized version of himself; Shiner is bizarre, difficult to work with and quite funny, with Norton responsible for many of the film’s big laughs. Emma Stone brings a spunk and ferocity to her performance, making her completely believable as the child of a washed up Hollywood star. And Naomi Watts is touching as Lesley, particularly in one tragic sequence in her dressing room after a performance gone wrong.

It’s a shame that the script for Birdman is so mediocre, because everything surrounding it is so great. The cast is easily one of the best of the year and Iñárritu’s direction is tremendously skillful. The unique Broadway setting gives the film a distinct flavor and the percussion heavy score from Antonio Sanchez is strange in the best possible way. This is a film that remains consistently good throughout its two hour runtime, but it’s never able to achieve the status of greatness that it so desperately desires. Watching it is a lot of fun, but the results don’t end up adding up to much.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) receives 3/4

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