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BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): A Review

"The two hardest things in life to deal with are failure and success" - author unknown

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a former star of the fictitious superhero "Birdman" franchise films, who is on the downside of his career and tries to reignite it by adapting, directing and starring in a stage version of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film follows the trials and tribulations of the staging of the play, of Riggan's life and his descent (or further descent) into madness.

Besides Michael Keaton in the lead, the film boasts a stellar cast of supporting actors including Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis. All of them turn in solid and sometimes spectacular performances. Norton in particular is really great as Mike Shiner, a stage actor intensely committed to his craft and work. 

Keaton is the best he has ever been in the lead role of Riggan Thomson. He effortlessly captures Riggan's desperation, emptiness and regrets, both professional and personal. Keaton emanates Riggan's frantic need to be famous, important, respected and loved (both by others and himself), and that reeking stink of desperation seeps through his every pour and envelops and follows him wherever he goes.  Keaton as Riggan is both charismatic and repulsive at the same time, no easy feat, and he carries the film with the power of his performance as a man running out of performance power.

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" - Mike Shiner

The symbolism of having Keaton play the lead is undeniable. Keaton has been identified for decades by his portrayal of Batman in the first few Tim Burton Batman movies of the 80's. In many ways, Keaton's once promising career never fully recovered from being Batman. His wallet certainly never suffered from playing the Caped Crusader, but his artistic soul, instincts, reputation and career most assuredly did. Keaton, just like Riggan Thomson, had not only lost his artistic soul, but he had also lost the thing most precious in the entertainment industry…cultural relevance. Riggan's staging of a 'comeback' play is on one level, an attempt to save his artistic soul by returning to the birthplace of acting…the theatre, and doing a work by Carver, a writer who once encouraged a young Riggan to really pursue being an actor. But as the ice cold theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (brilliantly played by Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan, "You aren't a real actor, you're a celebrity". Ouch…the truth hurts, as they say, because on another level Riggan proves Tabitha right, by using his return to the theatre as just a way for him to get some temporary artistic credibility (Mike Shiner's aforementioned 'prestige') in order to return to cultural relevance, and thus fame ('popularity'). Of course, the same could be said of Keaton, who in returning to a smaller, independent, art-house type film, is trying to re-ignite not only his long lost acting credibility (prestige), but also his fame and cultural relevance (popularity). Keaton has gotten nominated for a Golden Globe and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination, which brings with it prestige. So this film may work for him on both the prestige and popularity counts. Time will only tell how things play out, I certainly hope he doesn't fling himself out of a high-rise window.

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What is fascinating about Birdman is that it plays with the multiple ways in which reality is perceived from an artists (or at least an actor's) point of view, and lets all of those various realities mix together to help the viewer try and understand why Riggan is so out of and off balance. His world and his perception of the world never settles down enough for him to stand firmly upon it and claim one reality as his own, so he stumbles from one perception of reality to the next, never fully understanding any one that he inhabits.

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Riggan has a sign up on his dressing room mirror which reads, "A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing". This is a bit of wisdom that Riggan is never fully able to integrate into his psyche. Riggan, like most famous people, or formerly famous people, is stuck between being an actual human being and being a human creation. Is he defined by what people are saying about him on Facebook, or how many twitter followers he has? Is he defined by what the critics say of him? Or of what studio heads think of him? Or of what films roles he is offered, or how many awards he has won, or how much money he makes? Or is he defined by his past success as Birdman, or has his past success as Birdman actually become a failure and does that define him? All confusing stuff but it can be boiled down to this…there are two questions that famous people, whether they be actors, reality stars, cable news talking heads, politicians or general wannabes wrestle with on an everyday basis…1. what do people think of me? and 2. what do the really important people think of me?….and not always in that exact order.

The artist is not spared in the distorted perception of reality discussion either. Edward Norton's Mike Shiner is a successful broadway actor, the quintessential stage actor. He is so lost in his art that he is unable to actually be a real, live person anywhere except on stage in front of an audience. He is so committed to his art in fact, that the only time he has been able to get an erection in the last six months is on stage in front of a live audience during a performance of Riggan's 'comeback play'. He is self aware enough to know that he is a disaster area of a human being, but is so cocksure as an actor that he is willing to overlook the 95% of his life off-stage in order to 'shine' for that 5% of the time he is on stage. The artist, along with the fame hungry star, can lose their balance in the search for their validation of choice. As Mike Shiner puts it, "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige". Shiner is the artistic shadow of Riggan, and in turn, Riggan is the shadow of Shiner, both distorted by their quest, one for popularity, one for prestige. Flip sides of the same coin.

"I do not like the man who squanders life for fame; give me the man who living makes a name" - Emily Dickinson

The lesson to take from Birdman, (and a life in the acting business) is that fame is a disease. The pursuit of it is an act of the insane. With fame comes a deep moral and ethical decay and rot. The world of the famous is filled with corruption, depravity, self-loathing and paranoia. When a person attains fame, they cease to be a human being, and morph into a soul-less product. Just like any large corporation, be it Exxon, Time-Warner or Goldman Sachs, the famous may have legal 'personhood' but they are not actual human beings.  This is the sickness of fame. It strips those who have it of their human being-ness, and that is why it strips those of us looking upon them of our humaneness. We project all of our hopes and fears upon them, often all at the same time. When a person is so inundated with all of these projections, they can't help but be overwhelmed by them as if by being struck by a tsunami. Their true selves get obliterated, and the person they were, for good or for ill, vanishes, and is replaced with a new self, that is false and manufactured. The only antidote to the disease and addiction of fame is to actively work against it and to cultivate a grounded life and a sense of true self. Fame as an off-shoot of being genuinely talented, is difficult enough, even when it is vigorously shunned, but fame that is a result of  sheer ambition and force of will that is pursued to fill a desperate psychological need or satiate a malignant narcissism, is an act of madness that will most assuredly result in self immolation. Birdman lays that hard truth bare for all to see, and it is a lesson that America would be wise to learn in this age of the reality television star and the celebration of the minimally talented.

"Whatever begins, also ends" - Seneca

As much as I enjoyed Birdman, and I genuinely did, there is one major flaw, and in some ways it undermines the entirety of the film. The ending is terribly bungled, so much so that it leaves me scratching my head because they actually had the chance to end it perfectly twice and let those endings pass and instead settled for a muddled and bewildering ending that scuttles the interest and brilliance that leads up to it. The film ends with Riggan jumping out a hospital window, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) entering the empty hospital room and not finding her father and seeing the window open she goes to it and looks out. First she looks down, as if to find his body splattered on the sidewalk, when she doesn't, she then looks up…and sees something and smiles. We don't see what she sees, but I would assume that Riggan has become The Birdman, or a legend and now resides among the stars or something along those lines. He has become immortal at last. That ending is fine in and of itself, but it doesn't work because in the context of the film, there were not one but two different endings leading up to it, thus altering and undermining the final beat of the movie. The first aborted ending is when Riggan is on stage with a real gun and not the prop gun of the play, and holds it to his head and pulls the trigger in front of a packed house on stage. The screen goes black. The film could have ended there and people would have left talking about it. How people will literally (and figuratively) kill themselves for fame and stardom. This is a major theme running through the American psyche at the moment and numerous films are exploring the subject, from Whiplash to Foxcatcher to Birdman. The 'shooting yourself on stage' ending leaves us talking about those type of issues and our celebrity and fame infected and obsessed culture as we leave the movie theatre and for days and weeks after. 

The second ending comes right after the first, we come back from a black screen following the shooting to find Riggan in the hospital, he survived, but he shot his nose off. He has literally (and figuratively) cut, or in this case shot, his nose off to spite his face. On the other hand, he is on the cover of all the newspapers and the hot topic on television, everyone is talking about him, and even giving him great reviews. He is back to relevance, both artistic and fame-wise, prestige and popularity. He sits in bed thinking about it all, the madness of it, the hell that was fame when he once knew it, the road that lies ahead of being back in-the-mix of the decadent, vicious, vapid and vacant world of hollywood and pop culture. Keaton is brilliant in this scene, he captures Riggan's conflicted feelings and fear perfectly. It would have been an absolutely fantastic way to end the film, with just a close up of Keaton as he hears that he IS BACK ON TOP, and seeing what that really means to someone who has lived through it before and knows he won't live through it again this time, and how empty and toxic the prize he has just won really is. Cut to black…prepare Oscar speech. But again, they didn't do that, they instead have a few more minutes of the film which just aren't necessary and which undercut the brilliance that preceded it and disrupt and alter the rhythm of the film. I have been trying to figure out why the decision to end the film where they did was made, it is baffling. It isn't a more 'hollywood' ending, in fact it is still an 'art house' ending, just a more muddled and less coherent one. And of the three artistic endings it could have used, it is without question the weakest. 

As a result of the unskillful ending of the film, I had the experience of finding the film to be…well...forgettable. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the experience of watching it in the theatre, and it is also not to say that it isn't a good film, it is to say that by faltering at the end the film does not end up staying with you for very long. You don't walk out of the theatre and talk about it for hours. You don't think about it and mull it over for the following days and weeks. The film had the chance to be a sumptuous feast if it had gotten its ending right, but instead it lurches from one false ending to the next, which ultimately, like chinese food, leaves you hungry twenty minutes later.

In conclusion, Birdman is a very good film that I really enjoyed watching, with solid and sometimes spectacular performances by the entire cast, but it misses out on being a great film by not getting the oh-so-critical ending right, and that is a terrible shame. As I said, I did enjoy the film, but I do wonder if 'normal' people, in other words, 'non-actors' or 'non-entertainment industry' people will enjoy it quite as much as I did. But with all that said I recommend you go see it, if for no other reason than to get a glimpse into the madness of the life of being an actor, or even worse...a successful actor.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , FOXCATCHER , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .