Birdman; or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)

BirdmanPosterI was going to hold off on writing up Birdman; or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance until after October, so I’d have a nice, neat little block of horror posts for this month. But the thing is, I just can’t wait. I have been thinking about the movie ever since I watched it two days ago, and the more I think about it, the better it gets in my head. I feel it is my duty to direct whatever audience I might have to the theaters to see it while they can.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is washed up. In the 1990’s, he played everyone’s favorite superhero Birdman, but today he’s nobody. All that remains of Birdman is the occasional photograph request from Midwestern families on vacation. Well, not only that I suppose; it seems Riggan maintains an inner dialog with Birdman, the latter always pumping the former up and reminding him that he is a star. But Hollywood has no time for him these days, unless of course he suddenly becomes interested in making Birdman 4. But Riggan has loftier aspirations; in fact it’s those aspirations that have brought him to New York City, where he is acting and directing in his very first Broadway play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He’s never done a thing like this before, and he’s putting his reputation and financial security on the line.
The play is, of course, a disaster waiting to happen. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering addict of some sort, is acting as his assistant and she’s gonna blow any minute. Worse still, opening night is not far away when his male co-star’s head is crushed by a fallen stage light. This is a blessing; the guy was terrible, and Riggan insists to his lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) that he himself actually made it happen. Jake has no time to ponder Riggan’s potential telekinesis and is more concerned with getting a new guy in the fallen actor’s seat. One of Riggan’s female co-stars Lesley (Naomi Watts) is well-connected and pulls in Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a Hollywood darling of the moment with opinions and attitude, who also happens to “share a vagina” with her.
So amongst post-rehab familial turmoil, relationship issues between Lesley and Mike, Mike’s diva bullshit, the possibility that Riggan’s girlfriend Laura is pregnant, a likely lawsuit resulting from the fallen stage light, an almost guaranteed shit-review from the New York Times and Riggan’s failing resolve despite his inner Birdman chirping confidence into his ear, the show must go on. But how will it go?
It has been a long time since I’ve seen a new movie with Hollywood actors that is this good. Part of why it is so good is that it absolutely indicts the current state of Hollywood. Riggan’s Birdman conscience is always going on and on about what a “star” he is; all his career needs is a jump-start with another action-packed, superhero blockbuster. But Riggan dares to defy the expectations of Hollywood and his audience in hopes of doing something he considers actually meaningful. As Marvel has just publicized release dates for future superhero movies through 2018, could Birdman have hit the nail on the head any more square? Furthermore, Birdman will only become more relevant as whatever actors play the lead roles in these increasingly tiresome blockbusters age and become themselves irrelevant and forgotten.
I can’t help but wonder how the writers went about creating the screenplay. Did they actually get input from Keaton, who is very clearly the template for Riggan’s character? This movie just wouldn’t mean as much, or possibly couldn’t have even been made, if it hadn’t been for Keaton’s involvement. Birdman absolutely cannot be separated from Keaton’s own experience acting in Batman, a humongous blockbuster that arguably set the stage for the superhero boner Hollywood’s been sporting ever since. A brief glance at Keaton’s imdb page displays loudly Batman and Batman Returns: these are Keaton’s hallmark films, and they’ve cast a shadow under which it’s been undoubtedly difficult for Keaton to escape. Mad props to him for going balls-out with this flick. Did I mention he fucking rocks it in this movie? His performance is stellar; a total pleasure to watch. I have always enjoyed Keaton’s work but this is, like, some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen him do.  
Keaton’s not the only one who shines bright in this movie, though: Galifianakis, Norton and Stone all give pretty fantastic performances. It is worth noting, too, that most of main roles in this film are played by actors who have somehow been involved with blockbuster or superhero movies; there’s Ed Norton’s Hulk, Stone’s Spiderman, and Watts’ King Kong. And though Galifianakis hasn’t dipped into the superhero pot too much (at least not that I’m aware), he is most certainly a victim of the never-ending sequel (The Hangover III? Really?). Birdman really gives its actors a chance to show us what they can do (with the exception of Naomi Watts, who unfortunately isn’t really given much to work with here). Moreover, it dares us to care. The audience is indicted just as much as Hollywood is; after all, Hollywood wouldn’t be churning out gelatinous muck unless it was in high-demand. Writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Co. are asking more from us, and I do believe it’s high time we the audience give writers, actors, and studios a reason to produce quality instead of tripe.
Speaking of quality, don’t think for a second Iñárritu lets critics off the hook. The whole time Riggan is preparing for opening night, the dark figure of the New York Times critic Tabitha Dickinson looms in the background. She frequently drinks martinis in a bar right next to Riggan’s theater, and while she has a contemptuous but respectful relationship with Mike, she has absolutely nothing but disdain for Riggan and other actors like him. She knows the power her reviews hold over the success or failure of a particular play, and she is not afraid to use it. I don’t consider myself a critic, but certainly when you’re writing up anything and offering a published opinion, you’re either endorsing or decrying that thing. Riggan’s opinion of such critics comes out in a fit of desperation and drunkenness, but is articulated better than anything I could ever put to paper, and I’d be lying if I didn’t feel implicated. 
While all of this sounds sort of heavy, and I suppose it is, this is more than just a drama. It is darkly, intelligently funny, and it manages to be so without long stretches of irritating dialog which seems to characterize intellectual comedies. It is refreshing in that way and so many others. There is a lot more I could say, like about how there’s this whole personal struggle going on with Riggan and this movie’s about much more than just showbiz, but I’m way over my word limit here, folks: just go see the damn movie. It needs us as much as we need it.

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