The 23rd annual Philadelphia Film Festival kicked off last night in a less than grand fashion. After an unexpected last-minute issue with the projector, a venue change was quickly arranged and delayed the evening by nearly an hour and a half. Set to jump-start the festival was Alejandro G. Inarritu's latest cinematic achievement, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Inarritu has taken the industry by storm with prior successes such as 21 Grams, Babel and the foreign hit Biutiful, so needless to say the buzz was swirling for his upcoming release. Unfortunately, for me, the expectations soared high above the finished product.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a has-been actor who once ruled the entertainment world as the lead man behind the iconic superhero franchise, Birdman. Since his time atop the proverbial mountain, Riggan has faded from the limelight but is making one final attempt to reclaim past glory with the premier of his Broadway play. However, Riggan struggles to balance his overwhelming ego with a volatile new castmate (played by Edward Norton) and a crumbling family life.
Films like Birdman make for easy critiques. Guaranteed to be a polarizing watch, one that my gut believes the general public will find disappointing on many levels, Alejandro G. Inarritu's new title leaves the door open for massive amounts of discussion. On one hand, the technical accomplishments surrounding Birdman are nothing short of immaculate. Intended to feel like an uncut and unedited film, which is by no means an easy task, Inarritu's effort requires fully committed performances from all of its actors. And believe me, there is no shortage of brilliant tour de force performances here. It all begins with the feature's leading star, Michael Keaton, who shines brightest. Keaton feels like an all-around perfect fit for the role, only to be complemented by other towering performances from co-stars Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. Thankfully, each and every character is delivered with a soulful turn that ultimately keeps an otherwise damaged film afloat.
For all of Birdman's technical conquests and wonderfully acted efforts, Inarritu's film is a falsely advertised and tiresome tale. Being pitched as a dark comedy, the laughs are far too sparse to justify such a label. And for anyone expecting an action-fueled superhero-eque type of movie, you couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, Birdman straddles the line of surrealism in order to tell the unoriginal story of a man's obsession with reclaiming the spotlight and, more importantly, leaving behind a legacy. After nearly two hours of the same old song and dance, the film blows past a golden opportunity to gift wrap its message and regrettably overextends its finale in an irritating fashion.
Birdman is well deserving of its praises as a spectacular piece of filmmaking, further elevated by grand performances from a long list of gifted actors. However, Inarritu's common history of poor pacing and prolonged endings leaves a bitter mark on the film. While I entered the Philadelphia Film Festival with the belief that Birdman was a viable contender for Best Picture, I certainly have my doubts now.