Review written by Mike Fishman
In Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a nearly washed-up actor best known for playing a Hollywood super-hero called Birdman (not unlike Batman whom Keaton famously played in the first two films of that franchise in 1989 and 1992 directed by Tim Burton). Riggan is desperate to escape the shadow of the role that made him famous and he puts everything he’s got on the line (financially, emotionally, mentally) to direct and star in a dramatic play based on a short story by Raymond Carver that he desperately hopes will salvage his reputation if not resurrect his career. Along the way, Riggan battles with everyone around him (his co-stars, his lover, his daughter) and with Birdman himself, who appears like a specter or perhaps more accurately like one of those little devils floating above cartoon characters’ heads whispering evil encouragements, here life-size and with huge menacing wings. All the while, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera literally follows Riggen, mostly through the dark interiors of the St. James Theater where the film is set in extremely long shots edited together as if in one long take, creating a powerful sense of propulsion and urgency.
Keaton gives a committed performance, ironically playing down his usual squinty-eyed disapproval of everyone and everything around him, portraying a man who is put-upon by the world and trying to do just one good and worthy thing. Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis turn in typically strong performances while Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter Sam leaves little room for shades of gray in her exaggerated role as a druggie pessimist. The plot is as contained as the set and some scenes feel forced or even unnecessary. To what purpose other than titillation do we see Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough lock lips? And the casualness with which Riggan finishes a joint he finds on Sam after ripping into her for still using drugs feels like a weak attempt at portraying hypocrisy. Yet just as often there are remarkable scenes, such as when Keaton and Ed Norton as Riggan’s co-star in the play run through a scene in rehearsal, Norton’s infamous bad-boy stage actor Mike flashing his acting chops to a fiery yet receptive Riggan.
Through it all runs a magical realism that finds Riggan floating in the air and moving objects with his mind. The effects are outstanding, particularly a scene where Riggan literally flies over New York City. This reflection of Riggan’s Birdman, both the character and the inner demon, is potentially undercut by the film’s final scene in which Emma Stone’s Sam is seen staring out a window breaking into a smile apparently observing Riggan floating in the air. The impossibility of that occurring in real life can perhaps best be explained as being imagined images flashing through Riggan’s mind as he lay dying on stage after shooting himself in the head. Or perhaps he died earlier, jumping off the roof in the afore-memtioned scene that feels so real it’s shocking until Riggan re-appears soaring over the city street. The director himself has been mum on explaining the film’s ending except to say that it replaced an earlier “bad” ending. One has to wonder if that earlier ending was the more expected if not predictably satisfying one in which Sam, in a rare display of affection, lays her head on Riggan’s chest in the hospital where he lay recuperating from that gunshot wound that turned out to be a minor injury. Though even that defies logic as the way the gunshot is filmed, it seems clear Riggan is holding the gun directly to his head; in the hospital he’s told he shot his nose off but when he removes the bandage all we really see is a huge bruise. The ending will surely divide its audience and that’s not a bad thing as ultimately Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), infused with questions about the value of art and the power of criticism, certainly gives viewers much to chew on.
Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.