Feb 4, 2020
Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Released in 2014, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman: Or (Why Is This Subtitle in Parentheses?) opened to wide critical acclaim, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, among numerous other prestigious awards. The film stars Michael Keaton as an actor best known for wearing a cape (riffing on Keaton’s own past as Batman), Edward Norton as his difficult co-star, Emma Stone as his fresh-from-rehab daughter, and Naomi Watts as a woman who’s seemingly stepped out of the first act of Mulholland Drive. The film is artsy, pretentious, flawed, and yet incredibly joyous to watch.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The film begins with Riggan Thomson (Keaton) in his dressing room, casually levitating in the air. His gravelly voiceover informs us he’s a washed-up actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in three big-budget movies. He left that franchise behind years ago, and is now taking on Broadway in hopes of bringing his adaptation of a Raymond Carver story to life.
After one of his actors has a freak accident involving a stage light, Riggan (who offhandedly suggests it was something he caused with his mind) and his lawyer/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) quickly discuss finding a replacement. Cast member Lesley (Watts) is the girlfriend of rising Broadway star Mike Shiner (Norton), who just happens to be available immediately. While Shiner’s talent is apparent, he proves difficult to work with, getting drunk during a preview performance and even trying to have sex with Lesley while on stage.
Riggan views this play as his last chance to be taken seriously, and the last meaningful thing he can accomplish in his life, so he becomes increasingly stressed as it begins to fall apart, and Shiner steals the spotlight in press interviews. Meanwhile, his daughter Sam (Stone) is fragile, having just left rehab, and her drug use backstage only adds to his frustrations.
During another preview showing, Riggan goes out for a smoke and gets locked out of the theater wearing nothing but his underwear. He runs around Broadway to get back to the theater before his pivotal scene, and the whole event gets caught on multiple cellphone cameras. He soon becomes a social media sensation, and his daughter offers to help him manage this.
However, as the big opening night approaches, Riggan becomes unsure of whether his play is worthwhile at all. He’s also confronted with a theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who despises Hollywood actors and threatens to destroy his play with a savagely bad review. On top of all this, one of Riggan’s costars (Andrea Riseborough) says she’s pregnant with his child. Oh yeah, and Riggan also gets a hallucinatory visit from Birdman himself, telling him to give up and just make another Birdman sequel, because that’s all the people really want.
At the end of his rope, Riggan decides to replace the prop pistol he’s been using on stage with a real gun, and it would seem he intends to do the unthinkable in front of a theater full of people.
Birdman has a lot of strong points. The entire film is presented as if it’s one continuous take (with several bits of time lapse photography, given the story unfolds over the course of a few days), which is engaging from start to finish, and some of the shots are poetically gorgeous. The camera pans down hallways, travels up staircases, and floats down through the rafters to the stage, and it’s unlike anything else in recent memory.
The nearly endless drum soundtrack provides an avant-garde element to the film that will likely be copied for years to come. Just as the Kill Bill soundtrack has been reused in everything under the sun, expect future films to copy the “single instrument” shtick used so well here.
The acting is solid all around, and this film is truly an actor’s movie. Take the early scene where Norton and Keaton are meeting for the first time. Both actors are playing their characters while imperceptibly shifting in midsentence to their characters in the play within the film. It’s subtle, but it’s beautiful to behold. From the opening title sequence to this scene, we know that we’re watching a film filled to the brim with inventiveness. Like it or not, it’s at least bound to get a strong reaction.
The film contains plenty of fantasy/magical realism elements, which while tiresome at times, do factor strongly into the movie’s themes. There are several scenes that depict Riggan as possessing the same superpowers as his fictional alter-ego, which one would assume is all happening in his head, even though the movie leaves that question open-ended. A flying sequence is funny in the way it introduces expensive Hollywood special effects into an artsy movie, yet it’s also deeply sad and mystifying.
In fact, much of the film mixes comedy and heartache in an effective but disturbing way. It’s what makes this film feel true to life, due to its complicated, and sometimes hard to discern, emotional content. Birdman is simultaneously funny, bleak, and uplifting, all in a film about a washed-up superhero actor.
However, one of the major drawbacks of the film is its story feels a bit endless. The film, like its main character, often runs out of steam before just barely getting back on the rails. Each scene is essentially a peak in the film, and while the plot does eventually move towards the play’s opening night, it gets tiring waiting for that to happen.
With each scene’s nearly self-contained drama, Birdman can be a struggle to sit through at times. While great art is often challenging and even tiresome, the movie is often overly so to the point where we get little out of the endless setbacks that Riggan experiences. Towards the end, we’re so beaten over the head with his downtrodden life that we forget to care whether the play is successful or not. The dramatic ending is muted when we’re already exhausted from the film’s numerous climaxes. The pacing and self-contained scenes work great in the beginning, but it takes away from the movie’s impact towards the end.
Speaking of the end: where is it? The film’s final scene feels tacked on, and while it’s kind of necessary, we can’t help but groan a bit when we see Riggan still alive in the hospital. Sure, it works in the film: the Carver play discusses a man who “can’t even kill himself,” and he mistakenly shoots off his “beak”, if you will, and ends up all wrapped up in bandages in a callback to one of the play’s monologues. But it does feel anti-climactic, especially since the film seemed to be priming us for his imminent suicide. So much for being daring.
Of course, this is Birdman we’re talking about, so it’s only necessary that this epilogue has its own climax as well. Once his visitors leave the room, Riggan again tries to kill himself by jumping out of a window. Or does he? For you see, his daughter looks out of the window expecting to see him splattered on the ground. But then she looks towards the sky and smiles. Cue credits.
Fantastic! Birdman ends with a possible dream, a lá Taxi Driver, or it ends with fantasy, or as a metaphor for believing in yourself and others will see that you’re special too. Of course, this is all nice and dandy, but the numerous aspects of this “what just happened?” ending make the proceedings feel cheap. Whether it was to instill a feeling of hope in the audience or to inspire heated discussion later is up for debate, but the ending fell flat for this reviewer.
Birdman may not be everything it’s been hyped to be, and it may not even be remembered as groundbreaking cinema—mostly because it’s not. What Birdman is, however, is a film that’s mostly great from start to finish, and aside from a few pacing issues, it’s a treat to watch. For a wide release film, Birdman is surprisingly artsy. Let’s hope this is a sign of things to come.