A former superhero actor puts his career back on track by reminding people that he’s a heck of an actor.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor and the former star of the Birdman superhero series in the 1990s. He has started to go insane and hears the voice of Birdman telling him how he’s wasting his potential in his current venture: writing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” with his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan appears to display telekinesis and levitation superpowers, but only when alone. When a lighting fixture hits Riggan’s male co-star, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), a day before previews are supposed to start, one of the leads, Lesley (Naomi Watts), recommends replacing him with her boyfriend, method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).
The previews go horribly. Mike wants to drink real alcohol during the show and gets into a fight with Riggan while onstage, while the next night Mike attempts to have sex with Lesley onstage despite her refusal and ends up showing his erection to the audience. When Mike does an interview with the New York Times and steals a story he heard from Riggan, Riggan attacks him and tries to fire him. Riggan’s lawyer and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), convinces him to continue. Riggan’s daughter and assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab, gets caught smoking pot by Riggan and proceeds to insult his entire life and ambition. She and Mike then start to flirt and eventually sleep together.
During the last preview, Riggan gets locked out of the theater in his underwear and walks through Times Square, becoming a viral sensation. Riggan goes for a drink and encounters critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who tells him that she hates Hollywood celebrities pretending to be real actors and promises to kill his play. Riggan then insults her and claims she’s just biased. Riggan then gets drunk and passes out on a stoop. While heading back to the theatre, Birdman appears to him and tries to convince Riggan to do another Birdman movie because audiences love spectacle and will praise him as long as there are big action scenes. Riggan flies to the theatre… or takes a cab, maybe.
On opening night, Riggan gives a command performance and apologizes to his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) for his behavior during their marriage, admitting that he tried to kill himself once out of guilt. As Sylvia wishes him luck, Riggan grabs a real gun and does the final scene in which his character kills himself, shooting himself in the head to applause. Riggan wakes up the next day in the hospital with a new nose and a glowing review from Tabitha, who claims Riggan’s suicide to be “super-realism.” Sam visits with flowers and new respect and love for her father. Riggan goes to the bathroom and tells Birdman goodbye before climbing out on a ledge to watch the birds. When Sam comes into the room, she runs to the window and looks down to see Riggan’s body, but then, confused, looks up and smiles at something she sees.
When I saw that the prompt was “Film with Great Cinematography,” I immediately knew that it had to be this movie. Not only are almost all of the shots in this film perfectly constructed, but the film itself is designed to seem like it’s mostly only a single take. It serves as a way to give the experience a feel more akin to a theatrical performance. While there are a few visible cuts, they roughly correspond to the “dream sequences” that apparently Riggan worked into the stage production. The single shot nature of the film is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope, which used a number of long-cuts and editing tricks to disguise the fact that the movie was shot on reels that could only hold 10 minutes of film at a time. While Rope is depicted as taking place mostly in real-time, Birdman instead uses transitions between parts of the theater or the city to move us forward in time, often connecting the shots thematically.
Similar to a play, too, the film will often focus on interactions between side characters, such as Lesley and Laura or Mike and Sam, in order to allow for Riggan’s story to move forward. Some of those scenes, while they are interesting and well-performed, often wind up reminding me more of a Shakespearean monologue crafted to buy an actor time for a costume change. They end up seeming even more blatant on re-watch when you realize that many of these side stories have no real resolution. Laura and Lesley begin to seemingly find an attraction to each other, but nothing further comes of it. Mike has no character arc and his relationship with Sam doesn’t move anything forward for either of them, aside from setting up the scene of Riggan getting locked out of the theatre. This makes the movie feel like everyone really exists to support Riggan’s story, which is exactly what his daughter accuses him of believing.
Keaton was really the perfect pick for this and, honestly, I can’t imagine it working with anyone else. Riggan Thomson is a thinly-veiled substitute for Keaton and Birdman for Batman. I was shocked to find out that this movie was in production without Keaton in mind at first. Riggan, like Keaton, is a great actor whose career suffered due to being typecast as a superhero. Despite the fact that superhero films are no longer treated as complete popcorn fare, with some getting critical acclaim or even Oscar wins, Riggan still hasn’t been allowed back in bigger dramatic roles. Birdman seems to represent Riggan’s love of celebrity, wanting Riggan to abandon his dreams of “real acting” and instead focus on spectacle.
The characters in the film tend to try and draw a distinction between spectacle films and real dramatic acting. Birdman even delivers a monologue directly into the camera during a fake action sequence, saying “[the audience members] love this shit. They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” When Tabitha tells Riggan that she intends to close his play, she describes it as being because she hates what he represents, film actors trying to appear on Broadway. Without any regard to whether or not Riggan actually can act, the fact that he once appeared in a popcorn film disqualifies him from any claim to actual artistry. This actually works even better under the final cast, because most of the leads in the film had all appeared in superhero/comic films (Norton – The Incredible Hulk; Keaton – Batman; Emma Stone – The Amazing Spider-Man; Naomi Watts – Tank Girl) and yet all of them give command performances in this film. Despite pointing out that studios will often conflate art with spectacle (they aren’t mutually exclusive, though), the film makes a point of showing that actors can do both.
Overall, this movie is a masterpiece. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Rent, steal, whatever you need to do.
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