Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) love/hate letter to the movie industry, a mixture of satirical send-up and insightful soul-searching that hinges on the legend of Michael Keaton. Keaton, who reportedly walked away from sequels to Tim Burton’s Batman (which set the stage for the current superhero film craze we’re living through), plays a version of himself, Riggan Thomson, who once walked away from Birdman sequels to be an artist.
In Iñárritu’s film, shot like one mostly-long take, Thomson directs, produces, and stars in a play he wrote based on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” An incessant (did it ever actually stop?) drumbeat rises and falls based on Thomson’s mood, thoughts, situations, providing a consistency that matches the cinematography (Keaton’s character meditates off the ground??). Iñárritu’s ‘take’ makes this one worth seeing, even if you’re not sold on Thomson’s interaction with his manager (Zach Galifianakis), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), daughter and his personal assistant(Emma Stone), girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), and boundary-pushing co-star (Ed Norton). But Keaton shows a range here, Birdman suit notwithstanding (did Christian Bale do those voiceovers?), that exceeds what we’ve seen in awhile. That makes it fun…
But the truth is this film is part-midlife crisis and part-existential soul-search. Sure, the play he’s doing might be his shiny red Corvette, but the internal struggle he experiences, played out with the ‘real’ Birdman who appears all around him, with the ‘superpowers’ that exhibit from the opening shot onward, with the way that Keaton plays Thomson like a real-life washout of an actor, a dad, a playwright, and a human being. This is far from fun, too, because even if it’s satirical of Hollywood, there’s something organic and human about it all, too.
You could probably go all Nietzsche or Plato’s cave on Birdman. There’s a saying, attributed to different people and cultures, that says we die two (or three) times: the first when our body ceases to function; the second, when someone last says our name; and the third, the last time your name is remembered by someone. Birdman shows Thomson’s struggle with that fear (some would say innate within all of us) of being forgotten, of never having belonged or having made a difference, all tied within the confines of his own career. Thomson spends much of the time worrying about being remembered, being known, being loved – in the microcosm of the play within the movie, and in the movie itself. But I think he’s truly freed from his fear (and the voice in his head) when he recognizes that he is loved in the real world, that he doesn’t have to act to be accepted.
Should Birdman be considered “great”? I’m not sure about that one yet, but I do know the direction is excellent, and that Keaton and Stone are solid in their character depictions. I know that the story, while pointing its grubby fingers at Hollywood, also speaks to our “ordinary” lives, where we long to be loved and known; we know we’re meant for something more and we can’t always figure it out. Can you find that outside of God? Some would say yes. Can you find it outside of community? I think that’s highly doubtful. Community gives us power, and tethers, and reminders of who we can be. Birdman seems to display a belief that we can’t be free until we’re okay in our own skin.
Seems about right to me.