Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) is a black comedy in limited release that tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up actor who achieved fame by portraying an iconic superhero as he struggles to mount a Broadway play in a last ditch attempt for artistic relevance. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego as well as a upstaging costar (Edward Norton) while attempting to recover his family, his career, and himself. If you've seen the previews or the Television spots, you may be tempted to see the movie so that you can check out some of the cool special effects related to the Birdman character. Birdman is not germane to the plot, however, and serves only as the voice of Riggan's ego. So, don't expect much in the way of superhero action. What's important is that Keaton's character was a huge movie star at one point in his career and has fallen into near-obscurity. This movie is a backstage drama, not a comic book comeback.
The casting of Keaton can easily be seen as meta since he starred in the Batman franchise before walking away and fading into near-obscurity. Whether or not that was the intention, Keaton brings his full talent to the role and delivers a rich, layered, poignant and sometimes comedic performance. Riggan, determined to prove himself on Broadway by directing and starring in a self-financed adaptation of Raymond Carter’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” faces mounting adversity during previews of the show. Riggan must not only cope with his just-out-of-drug rehab daughter (Emma Stone) and embittered ex-wife (Amy Ryan) but also his harried lawyer/manager (Zach Galifianakis), actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), insecure leading lady (Naomi Watts), and her narcissistic actor/boyfriend (Edward Norton) who is bound and determined to steal Riggan's thunder for himself. Compounding Riggan's problems is the voice of Birdman, as his alter-ego, firmly lodged in his brain, seemingly enabling his mystical telekinetic powers. In the end, we end up asking ourselves what makes someone relevant, what the difference is between love and admiration and we are reminded that we may be too quick to dismiss art as crap if it does not suit our tastes.
The performances are excellent and there's some great back-and-forths between Keaton and Norton. Yet, a discussion about Birdman cannot truly be had until one mentions the fluid cinematography, edited in such a way as to appear like one continuous take, and the percussion-based score which adds to Riggan's angst. This type of cinematic jazz will challenge your notions about narrative and will leave you richer for having experienced it. Still, at the end of the day, Birdman is a movie that you're either going to "get" or completely dismiss as a flaming pile of turd. Personally, I think this is the best movie of 2014.