Movie Review: BIRDMAN (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)
The majority of movies I see are pretty straightforward. They don’t require much thinking to figure out what’s going on. So, when I see a movie that does require some thought, it’s like a breath of fresh air.
BIRDMAN is a thought-provoking movie that, like a masterful painting, doesn’t always give you its full meaning right away. You have to look at it for a while, think about it, digest it.
BIRDMAN tells the story of a has-been actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) who’s trying to resurrect his career by financing and starring in a play on Broadway. He’s also doing this to reinvent himself. He achieved superstardom decades earlier for playing the superhero Birdman in a series of Hollywood blockbusters, and this history makes the casting of Michael Keaton in this central role all the more intriguing, as it’s a case of art imitating life, as Keaton starred in the highly successful BATMAN movies directed by Tim Burton, and over the past two decades, he’s been largely invisible from the big screen.
Riggan is haunted by visions of Birdman, as the character constantly speaks to him, telling him to forget the play and return to playing Birdman in the movies again. It would resurrect his career, Birdman says. But Riggan refuses to listen, and as he says more than once in the movie, he wants to be remembered for doing something important in his life, for appearing in a work of art that actually means something, not just some mindless Hollywood blockbuster.
The best part of BIRDMAN is the first two thirds of the movie, where we follow Riggan’s efforts to get his play off the ground. He’s helped by his agent/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who does his best to keep Riggan focused on the play. When they lose the other male actor due to an injury, they replace him with the well-respected method actor Mike (Edward Norton) who drives Riggan and the rest of the cast nuts with his quirky and antisocial behavior. However, Riggan can’t get rid of him because he’s a name who sells tickets, and there’s no denying that he’s a helluva an actor.
Riggan is also involved in a relationship with his lead actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), while Mike is involved with the other actress in the cast, Lesley (Naomi Watts). As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Riggan also has to deal with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who possesses a volatile personality and is trying to recover from substance abuse.
The interactions between all these characters bring this movie to life. By far, my favorite part of BIRDMAN was watching these actors interact with one another. The film is full of so much energy during these stage scenes, and it does a tremendous job capturing the back stage life of an actor, the fears, the toil, all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes of a Broadway play.
For me, this was the most satisfying part of BIRDMAN. I enjoyed all the performances and loved watching Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts.
But the main character here is Riggan, and the main performer in BIRDMAN is Michael Keaton, and it’s here where the film takes its strange twists and turns, as it enters into the mind of the disturbed Riggan. See, Riggan is going through a crisis. He wants his life to mean something. He wants to be remembered for doing something important, but he also realizes that his life isn’t what he wants it to be. He’s reminded of this every time he sees his daughter, because he feels like a failure as a father. He has similar feelings about his acting career. Has it all been for nothing? He doesn’t want the answer to this question to be “no.”
Under incredible amounts of stress, he looks like he could have a nervous breakdown or heart attack at any moment. As such, he’s on the verge of losing his mind throughout the story, which might explain why he has conversations with Birdman, the fictional character he played in the movies. And, oh yeah, he also believes he possesses telekinetic powers and can move objects just by using his mind. Oka—aay.
So, at some point when watching these things happen on screen, you have to ask yourself, are these things really happening or are they just playing themselves out in Riggan’s mind? Reality dictates that these things aren’t true, that they can’t possibly be happening. For example, when Riggan finds himself flying, you realize, this can’t possibly be happening, but this line of thought opens up the question, if not reality, then just what exactly is happening?
Is he dreaming? If so, how much of the story is a dream? Riggan is also obsessed with death and tries to commit suicide several times in the story. Does he succeed? Could these conversations and images be the final thoughts of a dying man?
This is what I meant when I said there’s a lot to think about in BIRDMAN. It’s as quirky and as satisfying a movie as I’ve seen in a long while. While I didn’t always find myself enjoying it— -it gets so bizarre near the end it was difficult to gage what was truly going on— I never stopped appreciating it.
In addition to the excellent acting by Michael Keaton and the entire cast, there’s wonderful direction by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. The film works on two levels. The first is as a portrait of stage life for actors in a Broadway play, and Inarritu’s camerawork captures this part of the film masterfully. The way his camera follows his characters around, the way it leads the audience through dark hallways through first person perspective, and the way he holds the camera on Emma Stone’s face in several key scenes all work towards lifting the material to even higher heights. There is a gritty realism here that possesses the feel of a reality TV show.
What makes Inarritu’s work here even more impressive is he juxtaposes these scenes with scenes that take us into Riggan’s subconscious, and these scenes play like anything but reality.
For this second level, the story of Riggan’s struggles with his own mind and soul, Inarritu chooses to take us into the realm of fantasy, as we have scenes of Riggan flying and moving objects without touching them. What are we actually seeing? Riggan’s thoughts? Dreams? Death images? Or could reality really be this strange?
While Michael Keaton and his fellow cast members might drive this one along, and while Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s direction puts it all together, it’s the script by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, and Armando Bo which provides the framework for BIRDMAN. It’s a brilliantly realized story that intersperses its main character Riggan’s idiosyncrasies, hopes, fears, and dreams with an often hilarious and brutally honest tale of actors working on a Broadway play. It’s Woody Allen meets Guillermo del Toro.
There’s also some insight on the power and value or lack thereof of criticism, as one of the liveliest and best scenes in the movie is a conversation between Riggan and theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who tells Riggan she’s going to destroy his theater career by writing a negative review of his play, even though she hasn’t seen it yet. She refuses to call him an actor, speaking down to him, calling him a Hollywood celebrity who has no business being on stage. To his credit, Riggan fights back, telling Tabitha that this is his livelihood, that he has put his entire life savings into this play, and that she’s a bitter talentless person for writing a negative review before she’s even seen the play.
There’s also a scathing scene where Sam sails into her father about how he wants to be relevant but how he never will be, how he’s a “dinosaur” in an age of rapid fire modern technology that he refuses to accept. It’s a painfully poignant father/daughter moment that probably has been shared by many parents and their children in this day and age of rapidly evolving technology that has changed the world entirely for people over the age of 40 and has made it a vastly different place from the one they remember.
On top of all this, the film also boasts a superb music score by Antonio Sanchez. This amazing drum score will get inside your head. It grows incredibly loud and cacophonous whenever Riggan is stressing out, and becomes an embodiment of his pain and angst.
BIRDMAN is not your typical Hollywood drama. It’s a quirky frenetic tale of one actor’s fight to remain relevant, all the while happening during a time that for all we know he lays dying, with the events of the story simply playing out in his head.
Regardless of how you interpret it, it remains a highly satisfying film, because like the main character in its story, BIRDMAN is a movie that soars.