This week’s Spotlight Film Series at the Latchis Theater, under the theme of magical realism is “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a 2014 film directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton and Emma Stone. It won Best Picture. That will always be its legacy, for better or for worse.
The film focuses on a man inexplicably named Riggan Thompson (Keaton), who much like his actor was well-known for his work in superhero films. Thompson is now washed up, and struggling with trying to create “real art” on Broadway by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of one of his favorite books. He must also deal with highly respected and skilled but difficult actor Mike (Norton), and his troublesome daughter Sam (Stone). Throughout, he deals with the voice in his head of the Birdman, the superhero he played all those years ago who seems to give him the ability of telekinesis (although, since this is magical realism and not just fantasy, it never works when others are around).
Given that the easiest way to join the Academy, the association that awards the Oscars, is to be awarded an Academy Award, it stands to reason that the majority of the members of the Academy work in show business, which means films about Hollywood and show business are going to affect them more personally. And people tend to prefer films that affect them personally. Thus, films that want to win Oscars are often set within showbiz.
Going into it, I expected the film to be Oscar bait. The premise seems typical of the genre. But it is anything but. It is a real, honest attempt to engage with many questions about art and commercialization and highbrow vs. lowbrow art. The film is genuinely entertaining.
Though the film is consistently very chewy, at times overestimating its own intelligence but never by much, it makes no concession to style. The drum soundtrack, one-shot shooting style, and magical realism highlights make it so that you are always captivated, and that you know what is going on when the real cerebral stuff hits, instead of being lost in a sea of boring, aesthetically bankrupt scenes. In addition, the actors are all phenomenal. Keaton brings incredible emotion and sympathy to a character that could have easily become unsympathetic in a lesser actor’s hands, and Stone is her usual charming self. One particular standout who makes great use of his relatively short screen time is comic Zach Galifinakis, whose foray into drama here likely set the stage for his fantastic FX show, “Baskets.”
While the film’s second act is nothing but sublime, the first act often stumbles on its way there. Of particular interest is one scene where, in order to comfort her co-star, who just broke up with Norton’s Mike, the actress Laura kisses her. This moment has absolutely no plot relevance, and is never mentioned again. This is emblematic of a recurring theme in the film, where its women are always being seen from the outside. With Riggan, we see all of him, and we even see most of Mike, but the women are never quite treated the same.
Still, the film is certainly not bad. It is a deep exploration into the concept of pretention, and high art versus low art, and if that appeals to you, it behooves you to see it. Don’t avoid “Birdman” just because it won Best Picture.