Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.
Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 3; Language 7; Sex 7/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
For dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words…
With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God.
Ecclesiastes 5:3, 7
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s film is fascinating, taking place mostly within, on top of, or around the legendary St. James Theatre in New York City close to Times Square—and, we must add, within the mind and soul of its tormented protagonist. For theater lovers St. James is like holy ground—at one point we hear an actor (I think it was Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner) standing on the stage and looking toward the seats as he lists some of the great actors who performed there in the past. But now, if we are to belief such purists as Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), the acerbic drama critic for the New York Times, the barbarians are at the gates in the person of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), washed up Hollywood actor trying to reinvent his career by mounting a stage play.
Iñárritu mixes the genres—backstage drama, dark, dark comedy, father-daughter relationships, and even a touch of magic realism. The latter appears in one of the first scenes in which we see Riggan, dressed only in his skivvies, sitting in the lotus position meditating while levitating in midair. Riggan seems haunted by the Raymond Carver quote, “Did you get what you wanted out of life?” He had once been a huge Hollywood celebrity because he starred as a costumed, winged hero in three Birdman films. We hear him asking/complaining in his husky Birdman voice how he came to such an awful place that smelled “like balls.”
Wanting to be regarded as more than just the star of a comic book-based franchise, he had turned down the 4th Birdman film. Maybe a good move to booster his sense of artistic integrity, but not for his career. Forever tethered to Birdman, Riggan has not been able to land other roles, thus forced to live off his Birdman earnings during the past 20 years. He has decided to take matters into his own hands by investing all of his money (including the mortgage on his house) into a play that he has adapted from the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver.
Riggan also intends to direct and star in the four-character play, a move that lovers of “serious” drama see as an act of hubris by an untalented Hollywood hack. Chief among his cynical detractors is the already mentioned drama critic for the New York Times. She apparently hangs out at the same bar where Riggan sometimes seeks to drown his cares in mixed drinks. “You’re not an actor, you’re a celebrity,” she sneers at him when he approaches her. She can hardly wait for the play to open so she can trash it in her review. One gets the idea that she has already written the review, leaving some blanks to fill in about the play’s specifics. Riggan, of course, hopes to prove her wrong.
Another doubter of his abilities is his own daughter Sam (Emma Stone). Recently released from a rehab center, she works as her father’s stage assistant. This is probably not a good idea because she sees close up his pathetic struggle to emerge from his tawdry Hollywood past to become something that she believes is impossible for him. In an angry exchange she blurts out that he is doing the play because he wants to matter, but that he really doesn’t. She even lambastes him for failing to use social media to spread the word about his play. “You don’t even have a FaceBook page . . . It’s like you don’t even exist.” Shades of Men, Women, and Children!
Former blockbuster star Riggan is a bit like Marley’s ghost, doomed to drag around the chains of his past sins. In the actor’s case it is the lowly comic book hero Birdman whose deep, husky voice he hears telling him to give up this attempt to show his artistic integrity and just embrace his past. We even see Birdman walking down the street directly behind Riggan. In a frontal shot we see Birdman’s huge wings sprout behind the actor as if they were attached physically to his body.
Another nemesis of Riggan’s is the acclaimed Method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who is brought in to replace the co-star, injured during a rehearsal. Mike’s ego is even bigger than Riggan’s. Apparently blessed with a photographic memory, he is able to start right out opposite Riggan minus a script at their first meeting—but as they are doing the scene he changes lines, telling the author of the script that the “corrections” make the interchange clearer. This reminded me of the scene in Amadeus in which the Italian composer Salieri presented Mozart with a short composition he had written in honor of the latter’s being invited to the Emperor’s court. Not only does Mozart play the piece perfectly at first sight, but he then goes on to show Salieri how the simple piece could be greatly improved by a change here and there—not a great way to gain a friend.
As if the above were not enough, Mike makes passes at Riggan’s daughter, and he believes far too much in the Method. On stage in a kitchen scene he intends to use real gin, and Riggan, learning of this, substitutes a glass of stage gin. Mike becomes so angry when he discovers the switch that he breaks character, standing up and shouting at Riggan that he is not committed to the play and the performers, thus ruining things for the rehearsal audience. During another rehearsal, that of the play’s bedroom scene, we see under the covers Mike telling Laura that he has an erection, and that they should have sex with the audience looking on. When Riggan comes on stage with his gun ready for the dramatic climax, and Mike, clad in long johns, jumps out from the covers, the audience spots the erection and breaks into laughter, spoiling the mood for the moment when Riggan’s character is to shoot himself.
After that first rehearsal is ruined Riggan goes into a rage backstage, shouting to his friend and manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to get rid of Mike. One of two sane persons in the film, Jake reminds him that this is now impossible for economic reasons, that since the famous actor has joined the cast they have sold twice as many rehearsal tickets. Later in a funny scene the two lead actors are literally coming to blows and wrestling on the floor. A couple of stagehands look on, as if blithely thinking, “What do you expect from such people?”
An earlier example of the script’s humor is when Riggan and Jake are discussing what to do about replacing the injured actor. Jake says that a good actor doesn’t just knock on the door, when a knock on the door stops their talking. It is Laura, asking if they have found a replacement. When they reply No, she informs them that the famous Mike Shiner is available. With a mixture of relief and disbelief they ask how she knows him, to which she replies, “We share a vagina.”
Along with Jake the other sane person is Sylvia (Amy Ryan), Riggan’s ex-wife who, despite their divorce, still cares for him. She tells him, “You always confused being admired with being loved.” She comes and goes, offering her support to the beleaguered actor. In one scene he shares with her his regret that in pursuing his career 20 years earlier he had not been there for her and their daughter.
Michael Keaton’s incredible performance has garnered most of the praise from critics and viewers, and certainly deserves any upcoming Oscar buzz. However, this is almost as much an ensemble cast film as a Robert Altman work. The aforementioned actors also rise to the high level of Keaton’s performance, as do Naomi Watts as Lesley and Andrea Riseborough as Laura, the two female characters in Riggan’s four-person play. Laura and Riggan have been carrying on an affair, and when she tells him she is pregnant, his inability to fake a positive response angers her so much that she slaps him. In a more tender scene, constituting “ a moment of grace,” Lesley is crying in her dressing room because the erection scene had ruined the performance. She is convinced that this, her first appearance on Broadway, will be a disaster. However Riggan joins her and assures her the fiasco was not due to her, that she is a talented actress and he is lucky to have her.
Opening night arrives, but matters turn out in a surprising, ironic way, especially the play’s climactic suicide scene. This gives rise to the film’s subtitle, taken from a line in the review of the play, “…the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Magic realism kicks in with the film’s last scene, ending with a shot of Sam, her big eyes at first looking down from a hospital room in search of her father, and then gazing upwards, a slight smile on her face. The director has left it up to us to interpret this last, telling scene.
This is one of the most fascinating character studies that I have seen. Even the way that the movie was shot, seemingly as if filmed in one long, unbroken take. Another effective element of the film is the largely percussive soundtrack by Antonio Sanchez. At least twice we see the drum ensemble playing the jazz score—once at night on the sidewalk outside the theater, and another during the embarrassingly funny scene in which Riggan, locked outside the backstage door, runs in his skivvies around to the front through a large crowd, the drummers dressed in marching band uniforms.
In a short featurette director Iñárritu, explains that he wanted the audience to see the world through the eyes of Riggan, a world in which reality and fantasy are mixed together—hence the actor’s seeming to possess telekinetic powers, and in a fantastic scene imagine that he is indeed Birdman, on a mission to save the city from a giant bird monster. The director deliberately chose Michael Keaton because the actor had himself starred as a superhero in two Batman films, directed by Tim Burton in 1989 and 1992.
The director also observed, “All of us have a birdman, no matter how big or how small it can be, and I wanted the audience to be navigating the labyrinth of what he is going through.” And so we do, along with so many other characters in recent movies. In the dark August: Osage County, the “birdman” was the domineering mother played by Meryl Streep and the psychic wounds the family members inflicted upon one another, wounds that will not heal. Unlike the unfortunate victims in that film, Riggan does find healing, or freedom, as suggested by Sam’s upward gaze and smiling countenance. For people of faith this ending could well be a secular version of the opening lines of chapter 12 of The Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” Just change the Running” to “flying”!
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Dec. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.