And did you get what you wanted from this life?
How could you go wrong with such a name? Clearly, the people behind Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) have a sterling sense of making awkward things hip. It's a title that promises the dumb flair of a superhero movie (Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Batman) and then instantly undercuts that by going literary. This strikes at the core of the film's conflict.
Riggan is an aging actor who once starred in a trilogy of billion dollar grossing films about superhero Birdman. When he sees actual-world Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr on television he laments that he paved the way, but is now washed up. Instead of opting for a fourth Birdman feature, Riggan wanted prestige and legitimacy and thought to find it in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The heady tale of a husband scorned and lost in life draws striking parallels to Riggan's. It's becoming quite clear this isn't a superhero movie at all, but a richly detailed, kinetic, in itself stage-like drama set around a New York theater. That Riggan is played by the ever delightful Michael Keaton is spot on, as the actor famously portrayed Batman in 1989, way before superheroes were cool. It clicks.
And damn, Keaton looks bad. He looks positively hobo-bad. Even his lip wrinkles have wrinkles and his face gets more crater-pocked with every scene. But that's kinda the point. Here's a dude that's not at all OK.
Riggan has all the grinding doubts of a has-been star. Will his play work? Will he be accepted by the posh stage acting crowd? There's fantastic tension between him and Broadway prodigy Mike (Edward Norton), whose abrasive method acting pushes Riggan over the edge. There's an estranged daughter (Emma Stone), multiple current and ex-partners, and then of course the looming presence of Birdman himself, whispering in guttural Christian Bale. Riggan has telekinetic powers and can levitate, but he hides this from everyone – or perhaps it isn't quite real. That he's of no sound mind isn't surprising, but the film is set through his eyes, so we're never sure what's real and what's imagined. The success or failure of the play at the hands of both the actors and a cantankerous critic is secondary to Riggan losing his mind and his bid to maintain control. The production stress is enormous. Birdman keeps whispering in his ear that there's still a chance to return to Hollywood stardom, but there's the creeping suspicion that this too is a delusion.
This could've been rather morose if it weren't for the frenetic, funny tone and the colorful characters populating the theater. Keaton is perfect for walking a fine line between sympathetic hilarity and being kinda creepy. There's talk of suicide and him throwing a kitchen knife at his wife, and yet you're glued to his barnacle complexion. Birdman says a lot about the madness inherent to the acting profession. The process of acting means dissolving your own personality and temporarily replacing it by something else. You have to wonder, if the stuff that makes you you is so fluid and easily sculpted, how do you define and guard your own, true personality?
Of note: the whole narrative takes place in a wonderfully constructed single shot (emulating a stage play). There's digital trickery involved, but it feels natural and smooth. It's lovely to see how scenes change and time transitions within the same shot, furthering the dreamlike feeling of a mind slipping away. On top of that, the beat poem drum soundtrack creates the air of a magic show, a trick, something not quite real. Through this the film is both naturalistic and illusive, all without a smidgeon of artifice. In fact, I was rarely so invested in a film's characters as here. I couldn't take my eyes off Riggan and his entourage.
I'm wondering how Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) was ever put together. In my mind it's the product of a frustrated writer, tasked with producing the umpteenth superhero flick and instead taking the idea to Charlie Kaufman levels, making this decade's Being John Malkovich. But then Michael Keaton should have played Michael Keaton, and the voice whispering in his ear been the Bat himself. Oh, how fitting that would've been.