Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) offers an unsettling and riveting exploration into the dark underbelly of fame, following a tenacious actor’s journey to redefine genre, redefine himself and redefine what it means to be both a ‘celebrity’ and ‘actor/actress’ in Hollywood from an equally unsettling angle. ★★★★★
It is certainly humorous that in his latest release, ex-Batman star Michael Keaton plays the schizophrenic and delusional Riggan Thomson, a washed-out Hollywood star famed for playing comic book hero named ‘Birdman’, who attempts to revive his diminished career through producing an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What we Talk About when we Talk About Love” for Broadway. At a time when actors become famous for emulating superheroes on-screen and gain popularity overnight, director Alejandro González Iñárritu emerges with a terrifying message of what happens when the actors behind these characters – or indeed, any much-loved character – experience the distressing after-effects of no longer being man of the hour.
Keaton’s charm as Riggan comes from a place of emptiness and a void that can only be filled through gaining the fame and status associated with ‘making it big (again) in Hollywood’. Indeed, the film renders true the idea that 15 minutes of fame is simply not enough for some – and particularly for those actors who then struggle to move on from basking in the media spotlight. Keaton plays out the frustration and internal conflict of Riggan impeccably well, reflecting the mental turmoil associated with keeping up appearances in Hollywood while attempting to show that as an actor, he remains current and prominent despite the dark shadow of Birdman constantly lingering over him. He showcases both a fragile and image-obsessed man attempting to make sense of his dwindling career and fame, but switches this marvelously into moments of incredible self-obsession, hysteria and anger to display Riggan’s relentless need to transform himself from comic-strip hero to a ‘real actor’ defying unimpressed critics.
Emma Stone finally sheds her quirky, chuckle-inducing persona and shines as the tormented and equally conflicted Sam, recovering from drug addiction and attempting to forgive her father or at least, begin to accept her complex relationship with him. Interestingly, director Iñárritu taps into Riggan’s failure to adapt to technological advancement and his subsequent avoidance of Twitter and Facebook, enforcing those technological divides separating the old and the young in the 21st century while also suggesting that Riggan is truly trapped in a past he helplessly clings to; in their relationship, social media distances but also brings father-daughter together. Stone is compelling as Sam and appears almost ghost-like throughout the movie, forcing Riggan to confront his failures as a father and husband and addressing his tempestuous state of mind. Her presence throughout is refreshing and representative of the acting skills that audiences have been waiting to see.
Edward Norton adds a brilliant touch of humour to the cast as Mike Shiner, the actor who can do it right on stage but finds everyday life a struggle. His conversations and scenes with Riggan are particularly entertaining to watch and his eccentric and youthful persona offers a shift in mood that is truly welcome; in a movie that constantly stresses the weight of acting in Hollywood and exhibits the dangerous seduction of fame, prestige and ‘celebrity’, Norton saves us and adds some (and I say that tentatively) normality to the film.
About the ending? It’s certainly following a new stream of movies which leave audiences in limbo and remind us that films are art and not merely for a few hours of entertainment alone. When Riggan is on stage and saying his lines “I don’t exist” by the end of the movie, we have to question how much of this is true in the bigger picture.