Movie review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2016)

I tend to eschew things that are overly popular until long after they fade from public view. Birdman was one of those things. I heard the hype but didn’t run out to see it.

I found myself a bit perplexed by it. It seemed artsy without being so. A mainstream movie without being so. A movie concerned with talking rather than action. A movie that critiques movies concerned with talking rather than action.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor. He is continually haunted by his past as he attempts to resurrect himself as a Broadway actor. Once the star in a lucrative action franchise, the role he played—the Birdman—follows him around. The Birdman berates him for walking away from success and for being better than the situation where he finds himself: A Hollywood actor trying to put on a seemingly doomed play on Broadway.

Riggan battles the voice of the Birdman, quite literally. He seems to have special powers to throw objects around via telekinesis. (In actuality, he is just throwing them via normal kinesis.) Near the end of the movie, Birdman takes physical form and Riggan takes flight, soaring above the streets of New York City. (In actuality, he took a cab back to the theatre.)

Without or without his hallucinations and possible mental health issues, the play is a mess. One of the actors is so bad that he gets canned mere days before the preview performance. His replacement is a famous stage actor who has his own issues, including an over-sized ego. Riggan’s daughter, who is recovering from rehab, hangs around the theatre as Riggan’s assistant.

Riggan feels that the opportunity to redeem himself as an actor is slipping away. He has staked all on this play. He rejected Hollywood and his Birdman franchise. He mortgaged the house that was to be his daughter’s. His reputation as an actor is on the line. A prominent theatre critic promised to write a review that would bring down his play and destroy his reputation.

His personal life is no better. He is divorced, due to cheating on his wife. He is estranged from his daughter, despite her being his assistant—he has been an absentee father. His pregnant (and then not pregnant) girlfriend dumps him.

Somehow, despite it all, he pulls it together and pulls off the play…and in the process gets rave reviews from the critic who vowed to destroy him. He managed this through all his failures.

Getting locked out of the theatre in his underwear, he is forced to walk through the streets of New York City and enter the theatre from the front, walking through the aisles of the audience to the stage. Yes, all the while in just his underwear, shoes, and socks. His escapade on the streets went viral. His daughter introduced him to the Internet sensation that he became.

However, by the time he got to opening night, he was in the doldrums again, having slept off intoxication in the streets. A calmness came over him that his ex-wife commented on. Riggan recounts that the night when he cheated on her (and she caught him in bed with the other woman), he tried to drown himself in the ocean. In this frame of mind, he heads into the final scene where his character shoots himself. Only this time he takes a real gun.

But even with this, he fails. He manages to shoot off his nose but live. And the reviews in the paper rave at his performance. He is a Broadway star. He pulled off writing, directing, and acting in a Broadway play. Hollywood celebrity beats the odds.

In the end though, it is unclear if Riggan was enjoying the success. The Birdman wasn’t around, but we last see Riggan looking up in the sky at birds flying overhead and opening a window. Next thing his daughter looks for him in the empty room, sees the open window, looks up and smiles. Did Riggan become the Birdman?

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