In my mind, there are two iconic actors who represent the performances when it comes to film super heroes – Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton. So when I heard the premise of Birdman, I had to chuckle a bit to myself.
If you’re not familiar with the plot, Keaton’s character once played the world’s most famous cinematic super hero – Birdman. And then, at the height of the Birdman craze, Keaton’s character walked away from it all. Set in the present, Keaton’s character, Riggan, is trying desperately to star in a play he both wrote and is directing based on a work by the master of the short story, Raymond Carver. For the past twenty years, his career has not achieved anywhere near the success of Birdman, his life has fallen apart, and he needs to prove to himself that he’s a “real” actor. He must convince himself that he made the right decision so long ago.
Riggan has given this play everything, and we get to witness his odyssey as it unfolds a few days before opening night. But even as Riggan tries so hard to make the play a success, he also must deal with his wayward daughter played by Emma Stone, a pretentious supporting actor played by Edward Norton, his ex-wife, his attorney who is also producing the play, his actresses, and the nagging voice of Birdman who regularly accosts Riggan for walking away from a multi-million dollar film franchise.
If it sounds like there is a lot going on in this film, there is. Yet, by and large, the movie rarely leaves the theater in which the play is being produced. The camera follows the actors as they weave their way through a labyrinth of backstage halls and rooms, and it is mesmerizing. From a technical standpoint, Birdman is amazing. I don’t know much about cinematography, but even I recognized the intricacy involved in the filming.
Quite honestly, though, when thinking only about this film’s story, it fell a little flat with me. It’s not really a comedy, but it’s also not truly a drama. It’s not satire, yet it’s also not critical commentary. Does it hate social media, or does it love social media? Is it parody? It definitely isn’t farce. For me, consequently, the film dabbled in all of these ideas. Now I’m the first person to cheer any work that defies genre, but Birdman never felt quite comfortable in its own skin to me nor did it ever take a firm stance in terms of identity. Later we’ll explore if this is meant to reflect Riggan himself.
Birdman regularly ridiculed comic book movies, which is fine, yet it stars the biggest comic book movie actor still living, as well as one who got dismissed from the Marvel franchise and one who very much stole the show from a certain web-slinger. It touted what serious acting should be, yet the “serious” characters in the movie were moronic. The movie fought hard to revel in contradictions, yet it never struck me as more than simply indecisive. There is a subtle mania to Birdman, but I’m not positive it existed purposely.
In my opinion, the movie best shined when we got in Riggan’s head and heard the schizophrenic Birdman relentlessly browbeating him. Keaton still has great range, and I hope Birdman serves as a launching pad to a renewed career for him. The gravelly voice of the profane Birdman proved both disturbing and hilarious, and those were the moments when we got a profound sense of Riggan’s uncertainty pertaining to both his life and career decisions. When Birdman literally hovered over Riggan’s shoulder, all of the film’s paradoxical issues were all the more potent and, most importantly, worthwhile.
There are moments in the film when Riggan physically displays the powers of Birdman, yet it’s fairly clear those moments exist only within his own imagination. However, the last act of the film relies completely on these “power” sequences, and, as one of my friends put it, everything finishes on a rather vague note. I absolutely believe the ending was meant to be thought-provoking, although, for me, it wasn’t. It was merely erratic.
We could easily make an argument about the subversive message of the film. I could write a hell of a paper about how Birdman reflects the discomposed nature of Riggan himself. We could debate how struggling to perfect the Raymond Carver play is in fact the plight of Riggan to ultimately make peace with himself, and, when he realizes he is doomed to fail, he must “suffer” for his art in order to prove to the world he is a serious actor, as though the perception of an actor is more important than the actor’s own self-image, but that feels like a real reach on my part, especially because I get no sense the filmmakers purposefully intended such meaning. I’ve developed an elaborate theory as to Riggan’s fate, his Birdman persona, and the film’s literal ending in contrast with the figurative ending, but I’m not convinced the filmmakers made any such theory valid. In fact, I feel like I’m working pretty hard to make sense of the ending. Elements lead me to my conclusion, but they were only fragments, nothing comprehensive.
Of course, this sounds like I didn’t like the movie. I actually did enjoy it quite a bit. I’ll watch anything with Michael Keaton, and it is an interesting, well-made film. It’s not something I consider a stroke of genius or even terribly original, but that could perhaps just be me. It did win “Best Picture,” after all. It certainly seems to appeal to those in theater and cinema more so than the average person, which may be the most telling thing about it of all.