What do you make of an actor whose past their prime, but still wants to make sure they’re remembered for more than a superhero movie they did years ago? Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is an interesting deconstruction of popularity and prestige.
It’s about an actor’s quest to be the best man he can be, whether on the stage or as a father. It’s helped by a strong performance by Michael Keaton and an equally stellar cast. Like Frank, I found it odd, but enjoyable nonetheless.
The film begins with a man meditating and levitating in nothing but his underwear. We’re off to a good start. This is Riggan Thompson, played by Michael Keaton. As Thompson meditates, a voice in his head wonders how in the hell the two of them wound up where they are now. This is the voice of The Birdman and he hates Riggan’s current predicament. After all, the dump they’re in his horrible and smells like balls. No one wants to be in a place that smells like balls.
He’s soon called to the theatre set for rehearsal of a play that Riggan has chosen to write, direct and star in: a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. On set, we meet the other players: Lesley, played by Naomi Watts, Laura, played by Andrea Riseborough and Ralph, played by Jeremy Shamos. The rehearsal goes as well as it can until a light falls right on Ralph’s head. Whoops.
Riggan’s tells his best friend and producer of the play, Jake, played by Zach Galifianakis, to cancel the production. More than that, he’s not interested in speaking with the press. There’s a chance that Ralph could sue for his injuries, too.
When Riggan returns to his room, the voice speaks to him again. They were the real thing. Now they’ve been replaced by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner. Riggan tries to tune out the voice, but it’s no good. The Birdman is not going away.
Soon, Riggan meets with the press, with one journalist wondering whether this play is just a way to show he’s just washed up. Well, that went about as well as you’d expect.
Jake believes the play could use an understudy. Riggan isn’t keen on that idea, but then Lesley shows up at the door to tell the two that an actor has just become available. How does Lesley know him? The two share a vagina.
Riggan heads to the set and we’re introduced to Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton. Shiner is a method actor and is so confident in his ability that he knows the entire play, back to front, before he and Riggan can get far into a practice session. Shiner goes deeper than words on the script. He wants to know the intent of a lie. Hell, he goes as far as editing the play for grammar and proofreading purposes. No problem with that, in my opinion.
As this happens, we then meet Riggan’s daughter and assistant, Sam, played by Emma Stone. Mike makes a great first impression by telling Sam just how much he likes her ass. Mike is taken down to fitting, where he runs into Lesley. She makes him promise to not fuck up anything as long as he’s involved with the production. That’ll work.
Later, Jake and Riggan discuss Mike. Mike is talented, they know, but everything still needs to go according to plan. Luckily, the actual play doesn’t premiere for some time. Until then, everyone just needs to survive a few live stage performances. No problem, right?
Not really. During one performance, the audience gets really into Mike’s character, but Mike begins to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Rather than stick to script, he goes off track when he notices that the gin in his cup has been replaced with water. His tirade becomes more profane-laced and he even begins to destroy the fake set. Despite the audience turning on him and the cast just stunned at what they’re seeing, Mike storms off. Well, that was a show.
Riggan is pissed. He wants Mike gone, but Jake advises him to stay calm since this was only a preview. In addition, Mike is a huge draw. His presence alone led to double the number of advanced ticket sales. Even though Riggan isn’t a fan of him, he decides to let Mike stay on. Maybe just keep the gin in his cup next time, Riggan.
Back in his dressing room, Riggan gets a visit from his ex-wife, Slyvia, played by Amy Ryan. She asks how their daughter is doing and learns that Sam is trying to keep away from the same people that put her in rehab. Riggan is stressed out about Sam’s state, but Sylvia just tells him to be the best father that he can be. Riggan will do just that. He plans to start by refinancing their beach house…the same beach house that would go to Sam. Father of the year, folks. Sylvia, on the other hand, is about to take up teaching.
Their talk becomes tense when she tells him that she didn’t know at first why they broke up. Then she remembered: he threw a kitchen knife at her, but hours later, he said he was fine. He confuses love for admiration.
After this standoff, Riggan meets up with Mike to discuss the play and Mike’s attitude. Mike does not back down. He tells Riggan that people don’t know who he is anymore. After Riggan is gone, Mike will still be acting. He’s probably right about that. The two head to a bar- Mike wanted a bar that served coffee- and Mike directs Riggan’s attention to a woman at the other end of the bar. This is New York Times Theater Critic Tabitha Dickinson, played by Lindsay Duncan. Dickinson writes reviews that make or break the public’s interest in a play. She’s just that good. She would destroy someone like Riggan who, Mike is convinced, is a nobody. He says this seconds before a family comes up to ask Riggan for a picture, never mind this Mike Shiner guy.
Following this, Riggan meets up with Sam, who is drawing lines on a roll of toilet paper. There’s a point to this, trust me. He thanks her for the help, but an odor gets his attention. He soon finds Sam’s marijuana and is upset that she may be slipping back into a drug habit. Sam fights back, calling out her father’s ridiculous notion that he can make a comeback with this play. His career died after a comic book movie he appeared in years ago. In this fast paced environment, going viral is what gets you fame. Even if her father wants to feel relevant again, Sam is convinced that people have already forgotten him. After all, he has no social media presence. Doesn’t even have a Facebook page! I mean, the nerve.
And when Sam’s rant ends, she is silent for awhile before leaving. Riggan contemplates what his daughter told him while taking the last few hits from her joint.
We then head into another preview performance. Mike restrains himself this time, but there’s another problem: he’s hard and wants to bone right there, on stage. For real. After all, he hasn’t gotten it up in six months. I did not think that was possible, but I’m an amateur, not a doctor. When Mike tries to bone, Lesley storms off stage.
Mike heads to the rooftop and finds Sam on the ledge. The two talk and Mike learns that Sam has just gotten out of rehab. She wants to know why Mike acts like such a dick. His reason? He just doesn’t give a shit about people. I suppose that suffices. Sam switches to truth or dare and asks Mike what he would do to her if she wanted to fool around. Aside from not being able to get it up, Mike says he would take her eyes in order to see the world the way he used to. A bit morbid.
The next day, Riggan reads a less than flattering review of the preview, but what draws his attention is the positive buzz surrounding Mike’s performance. He immediately confronts Mike about this, telling him that the world still looks at him like a joke. Mike fights back, saying that Riggan isn’t as great of an actor as he thinks. An odd fight breaks out between the two that ends with Riggan heading back to his room.
And there, the voice returns. Again, Riggan tries to block out the voice of The Birdman by convincing himself that it’s a mental formation, but the voice disagrees. The Birdman is and always will be with him. Soon, people will learn that Riggan Thompson isn’t just Riggan Thompson.
He’s The Birdman.
Birdman must be what it’s like for actors when they’re no longer relevant. This film’s protagonist is a washed up has-been that few remember. He’s an answer on Trivial Pursuit and journalists ask him about his Birdman past. His own daughter tells him that he’s not important anymore and one of his co-stars says that he won’t be topical much longer. Riggan Thompson isn’t a fallen star as much as he is a forgotten one. Even though a few people recognize him, there’s one person that will always be by his side: the very mental formation he’s trying to forget instead of embrace. But even though Riggan knows he’s not as recognizable anymore, he’s not just reflecting on his glory days instead of looking forward.
And while a lot of this film deals with actors trying to get back in the public’s eye, there’s a lot of commentary on the explosion of social media and going viral. Emma Stone’s best scene illustrates this when she gets on her father for not having any social media presence. Sure, you can still attain great fame through hard work and integrity, but it’s become so much easier to garner name recognition by bagging items at Target, starting a hashtag campaign on Twitter or, in the film’s case, calmly make your way through the streets of New York in nothing but your underwear. See the movie. But then, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what I’m talking about.
Social media has evolved as an instantaneous way to reach and create communities based around similar interests, and acting is no exception. But if we grew up before that, it would feel out of place to try and adapt when we’re fine with what worked before. That’s the case with Riggan. He could be active on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or what have you, but he’s fine sticking with a play and reading feedback in a newspaper. Millennials may find that slow and dull, but that’s looking at it through the perspective of someone who is used to receiving information as fast as possible.
I would like to address the cinematography and camera work, as I found to be one of the more impressive aspects of the film’s direction. I’m not a director or cinematographer, but I imagine trying to execute an uninterrupted take can be tricky. One mistake and you have to reshoot an entire scene or just put in edits. When done right, a long, unedited take can look very impressive and stand out in a film or television show. It’s what made the introduction scene in Goodfellas or the long, tracking shot on True Detective stick out and that’s the same with this movie.
In this film’s case, we have cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who recently won an Oscar for Gravity. Huh. How about that? Between this film and the use of Glenn Freemantle in Jimi: All Is By My Side, filmmakers are really making sure they get their hands on anyone involved with Gravity. But anyway, Lubezki takes us on a journey that gives the illusion of it being one, unedited take. There are brief moments where we speed up to show the passage of time and clever edits. It almost feels like walking right next to the actors as they move from scene to scene.
Michael Keaton was born to play this role. While I doubt the character of Riggan Thompson had been written with him in mind, there are big parallels between Thompson and Keaton’s career. Keaton’s career hit a high point when he played took on the role of Batman. Between the original 1989 film and the follow-up, Batman Returns, Keaton was a big name. And this was after so many felt he was the wrong person to take on the role. His fame didn’t continue upward after Batman Returns, though, and you don’t see him appear in films all that much. Heck, you’d think playing Batman would set you for life, but not Keaton. Again, I doubt it was intentional, but it’s hard not to see the similarities.
Riggan is a man who is making his way back in people’s minds one last time. Even if he’s seen as an outsider to the Broadway circuit, Riggan is setting out to prove he still has some fight left in him. But he’s not one to boast about his past career, either. He knows who he once was, but doesn’t feel the need to force his IMDB profile down people’s throats. Keaton is fantastic in this role. There are moments where he gets to show his range through Riggan’s many outbursts, such as when he destroys his dressing room in an attempt to block out The Birdman. Keaton wears exhaustion on his face like a mask he can’t take off.
Speaking of The Birdman, we never get an explanation as to how or why Riggan has powers like telekinesis or flight, but I think they add to the mystery of Riggan himself. Is this voice really a mental formation or does he truly believe he is still The Birdman? That’s up for you to decide.
And while everyone else is great in their roles- Emma Stone and Zack Galifianakis in particular having some strong scenes- the other standout performance in this film is Edward Norton. Mike Shiner ends up stealing most of the show because Norton has these bursts of energy that made him entertaining to watch. He’s one of the most memorable parts of the film. I get the feeling that his character is a satire on method actors who have a lot to prove, but end up being a hassle to work with. He knows the entire play before he’s given a physical copy, but he breaks character when he realizes his drink has been switched. He hits on the lead’s daughter, dares her to spit from a roof and onto a man’s head below and tries to have actual sex during a live performance. Shiner is maddening, but it’s Norton’s vibrancy that made this role great to watch.
Birdman is a fascinating piece of cinema. It takes Hollywood’s massive ego and turns it on its side. Whether intentional or by accident, Michael Keaton was a great choice for the lead role. He and Riggan Thompson have similar journeys through fame, and now Keaton finds himself playing a man that may be past his prime, but isn’t about to retire. Helped by some great humor, performances and cinematography, Birdman is a film I would welcome anyone to see.