A faltering Hollywood star, who was once immensely popular for his role as Birdman, a caped comic book character, in the 90s,and who is now searching for something out of life by adapting a Raymond Carver story and then directing and starring in it for his Broadway debut.
If part of that sounds vaguely like Michael Keaton's career, it should. After abandoning Tim Burton's Batman franchise, Keaton has been in search of a role that shows his true talent. He may have found it in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
The plot line is deceptively simple. Riggan has gambled all of his wealth and the vestige of his prestige on bringing a play to Broadway that will re-establish his credibility as an actor -- in the Valhalla of the legitimate theater.
In the process, he faces a series of personal challenges: his ego openly battling with his id in the person of Mike, a young charismatic actor (Edward Norton); his personal life clashing with his current actress girl friend (Andrea Riseborough), a leading lady whose neuroses would energize a Woody Allen production (Naomi Watts), an ex-wife who shows up now and then to remind us of the downward trajectory of Reggin's life (Amy Ryan), a daughter (Emma Stone) just released from drug rehabilitation who acts as the sole voice of reason, and his friend and lawyer, surprisingly superbly played by Zach Galifianakis; and, my favorite, Reggin's nemesis drama critic nemesis (Lindsay Duncan).
But that is just the story. This is not the typical story of vacuous showmanship. Instead, it is a tale of life as vacuous showmanship. It is a morality play of redemption and validation. And why it does not happen.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director, who co-produced and co-wrote the film, had a brilliant idea about the movie's structure. Because this is a movie of lives trapped in the confines of a Broadway theater, why not shoot the whole piece with steady-cams using a single continuous shot -- or, at least the appearance of a single shot? The effect is to make each scene as real as a live play because the full take is dependent on everybody in a long sequence getting everything correct.
The result is a beautiful film filled with several of life's most basic questions. Such as: "Does my life even matter?"
And that is where the acting comes in. Each of the actors puts in a stellar performance -- almost as if they had been an ensemble company for years. I suspect some of them have even done their finest work here.
Two scenes sum up the movie's core for me.
The first is between Reggin and his estranged daughter, Sam. She has recently been released from drug rehabilitation, and her father has hired her as his personal assistant. It is a role that could have easily sunk to Hollywood cliché. But González Iñárritu gives his actors the space and time to let their characters become breathing entities.
In this scene, Sam nails her father's career as an actor while the subtext strips through to the rift that has isolated him from her. The strength of the scene is not the stream of bile, but the odd mixture of tenderness, sadness, and regret that briefly passes over her face as she turns from an angry woman in her 20s into a young daughter that is still looking for answers from her father.
[WARNING: This movie is rated R for its abuse of English. The pity is that the script could have been just as powerful without the profanity.]
The second scene is between Reggin and the drama critic for The New York Times. This is another of those films that contributes to the myth that a single New York critic controls the keys to Broadway. If that were true, how do we explain the ongoing lives of Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King?
The story line establishes that without a good review from her, the play will close and Reggin will lose his investment -- along with any chance of pulling his acting career out of the professional purgatory that is comic book movies.
She tells him, even though she has not read his play, she has a very distinct plan for it -- because he is a celebrity, not an actor.
That's true. I haven't read a word of it, or even seen a preview, but after the opening tomorrow, I'm going to turn in the worst review anyone has ever read. And I'm going to close your play. Would you like to know why?That is a brilliantly-written scene. As a send-up, it should become a standard piece of the power-obsessed world of the New York theater elite. What is beautiful about the scene is that it is equally effective in letting the air out of the Hollywood ego blimp.
Because I hate you. And everyone you represent. Entitled. Spoiled. Selfish. Children. Blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends.
Well, this is the theater, and you don't get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct, and act in your own propaganda piece without going through me first.
So, break a leg.
Even more than that though, it is a warning to us all. We often seek redemption in all the wrong places. In that sense, Reggin is an Everyman electing to find meaning in his life by playing a sucker's game.
There has been a lot of debate concerning the ending of the movie. An ending that is intentionally ambiguous -- and will elicit contradictory answers based on the prejudices the viewer brings to the movie. For that reason, they are all correct.
If Reggin failed to find redemption in his quest, Michael Keaton certainly has. With Birdman, his Batman will be just a memory.
While writing this essay, the dispute over the movie's ending caused me to start thinking about the central number that was cut from the film version of Into the Woods -- "No More." Because the questions raised by the song echo many of the questions in Birdman, I offer the stage version -- should you choose to listen.