Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Released:  2014

Cast:  Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

Oscar Wins:  Best Picture, Best Director (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), Best Original Screenplay (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr, Armando Bo), Best Cinematography (Emanuel Lubezki)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Actor (Michael Keaton), Best Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone), Best Sound Editing (Martin Hernandez, Aaron Glascock), Best Sound Mixing (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, Thomas Varga)

SUMMARY:  Former Hollywood star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is trying to reignite his career by adapting, directing and starring in a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.  Riggan is most remembered for playing the role of the superhero “Birdman”, and often hears the character’s voice in head, mocking him for his decisions.  Riggan has used many of his inner circle to put on the play:  his lawyer/best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is the producer, his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is one of the primary actors, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who has just finished drug rehab, is his assistant.  There are two other main actors in the play:  Lesley (Naomi Watts), a first-time Broadway actor, and Ralph, who is widely believed to have not acting talent.  When Ralph is injured in a stage accident, Lesley suggests hiring her boyfriend, famed stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).  Riggan and Jake are thrilled when Mike agrees to do the play, but Riggan’s opinion quickly goes south.  Mike is an intense method actor, and erupts violently at anything that disturbs his process.  During the first preview, Mike appears to be drunk on stage, so Riggan replaces the gin (being used in the scene) with water; when Mike figures this out, he breaks character and berates Riggan.  During another preview, Mike and Lesley are supposed to be found in bed together; when Mike realizes that he is actually aroused, he tries to force Lesley to actually have sex with him onstage.  Despite these disasters, Mike receives a lot of praise in the papers, while Riggan’s performance is mocked or forgotten.  Further tension arises when Riggan discovers that Sam is smoking pot.  When he confronts her, Sam goes off and angrily informs her father that his play is only a thin attempt to regain his stardom.  Just before the final preview (before the play starts its regular run), Riggan sees Mike and Sam kissing backstage.  Riggan is shaken by this, and decides to go outside for a smoke break.  Being between costumes, he goes out wearing only his shoes, underwear and bathrobe — only to get the robe caught in the theater door, which is locked.  Though he tries to pull the robe out of the door, Riggan is eventually forced to abandon the robe and walk around to the front of the theater — through Times Square — in his underwear and shows in order to make his entrance.  That evening, Riggan goes to a bar and notices famed theater critic Tabitha Dickinson.  Tabitha is known to despise movie actors, and when Riggan strikes up a conversation, she informs him of this.  She also promised to write a review that will end the play, even though she has not yet seen the show.

After leaving the bar, Riggan gets so drunk that he passes out of the street until morning.  When he does come to, he walks back to the theater talking to Birdman, who has gone from being a voice in his head to a visible person.  Birdman tries to persuade Riggan to give up the play and revive his Birdman role, which Riggan has been vehemently opposed to doing.  However, with the stress of the previews, and opening night promising to be a disaster, Riggan considers this.  He also imagines himself flying through the city, like Birdman does.  That evening, Sam announces that the video of Riggan running through Times Square in his underwear has gone viral, and that he is receiving tons of attention.  Sam is rather impressed by this, and finally lets her guard down around her father.  Before he goes onstage for opening night, Riggan’s ex-wife (and Sam’s mother) visits his dressing room:  Riggan confesses that after she caught him having an affair at the end of their marriage, he tried to drown himself in the ocean.  He also tells her about the Birdman hallucinations, but she does not respond to these.  After she leaves, Riggan changes the prop pistol he uses to shoot himself in the play with a real, loaded gun.  During the final scene of the play, Riggan delivers a monologue at the front of the stage, then shoots himself in the head.  The audience, not realizing what has happened, bursts into a standing ovation, although Tabitha walks out.  Riggan survives his suicide attempt — he only managed to shoot off his nose, rather than kill himself.  Doctors have managed to fix the nose, although it visibly changes Riggan’s face.  Jake visits and informs Riggan that Tabitha actually gave the play a rave review, particularly his performance.  Sam also visits, and the two have a close conversation.  When she leaves the room to find a flower vase, Riggan goes into the bathroom and finds Birdman.  He walks back out, ignoring Birdman, then opens the window and climbs onto the ledge.  Sam soon comes back, but her father is not there.  She notices the open window, and horrified, looks at the ground — but Riggan is not there.  She then slowly looks up at the sky, and smiles.

MY TAKE:  The first thing I noticed about this movie was that there was an awful lot of similarity between Riggan Thomson and Michael Keaton.  Actually, I thought the poster on the back wall was a Batman poster for a long time, not a Birdman one.  The men have a similar career path:  both used to be very successful in movies, particularly in superhero ones, but have not been heard of for some time.  This was actually not intentional, although Michael Keaton apparently thought he was being mocked when he was approached to star in this movie.  Despite all the awards it was nominated for, and won, I was not blown away by this movie.  I think most of this is because of the Birdman aspect — is Riggan actually crazy, or is Birdman like some sort of conscience or self-doubt?  I favored the conscience/self-doubt thing for most of the movie, but then Birdman actually appears.  The fact that Riggan is hungover doesn’t really lend much credibility, but he continues to appear.  I was very disappointed in the ending, because it doesn’t resolve anything.  Riggan finds out that the play was a smash hit, yet still appears to be depressed (or maybe he’s just completely nuts by now).  He appears to jump out the window and fly with the birds, which he imagined himself doing before — only now Sam can apparently see it.  I hate this final note, because it sort of brings into question the whole movie:  is Riggan crazy?  Is Sam then crazy too?  Was the whole movie a hallucination?  WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!  I don’t like having this suddenly metaphorical moment in a movie that has been pretty straight-forward.  It’s a crap ending.

RATING:  Okay; not great.


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