Perhaps the most self-aware and innovative of Oscar contenders this year, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is worth all nine Oscars it’s been nominated for, so long as you suspend your disbelief for just a few hours.
The film opens with Riggan Thomson, hovering above ground in the lotus position in his underwear as he hears the voice of Birdman his old blockbuster role and identity in his head. Cue your suspended disbelief.
Riggan is a washed-up Hollywood actor who hasn’t seen success in years (appropriately played by Michael Keaton) and has been left with a divorce, a saucer-eyed, sullen daughter out of rehab (Emma Stone) and an ability to sometimes use telekinesis and levitation. Hoping to revive his career, he directs, writes and stars in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Enter Edward Norton as Mike Shiner, a legit, successful and critical actor who steps in after a stage light falls on another actor. Mike and Riggan butt heads, but they need each other as opening night looms. All the while, Jake (Zach Galifianakis, cast entirely against type) is Riggan’s manager, who reminds Riggan, clipboard in hand, that the show must go on. And of course, lurking in the shadows, the bitter New York Times critic mirrors Birdman’s voice in reminding Riggan of his inner doubts that percolate throughout the film.
Just as strongly as he is burdened by his self-doubt, Riggan is liberated by his identity as Birdman. The film is punctuated by dreamlike sequences in which Riggan is shown soaring above Times Square, Icarus-like, with Tchaikovsky and Mahler inserted as source music. Just as quickly, he’s brought down to earth, tormented again by his past, and Antonio Sanchez’s percussion score continues.
Nominated for nine Oscars, “Birdman” has most of its actors recognized (including a first Oscar nomination for Emma Stone) and every base loaded except for one: Best Score. Antonio Sanchez’s score was snubbed early on by the Academy because it used too much classical source music, including powerful bits of Ravel and, most effectively, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and No. 5.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that Sanchez’s score is only percussion; it literally sounds like it was recorded on one teenager’s drum set. It’s unconventional — it’s not orchestral or harmonic like an Alexander Desplat score — but it’s jazzy and edgy, and just as innovative and unique as the film itself is.
The film would be nothing, though, without Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s directing and long, single-cut shots. His camera moves swiftly down tiny corridors and crowded city streets, but pans out in Riggan’s skyscraper-high flights. He’s constructed a film that is just as claustrophobic as it is liberating, and just as intimate as it is broadly-interpreted. “Birdman” is as much a psychological drama as it is a fable, and its ending (which I won’t spoil) elicits multiple interpretations. Iñárritu’s magical-realism is truly a delight, especially among more contrived Oscar contenders this season.