Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Riggan Thomson once flew.
He was a hero then. No, a superhero. Decked out in a beaked mask and metallic feathers, Riggan's Birdman swooped into the culture on silver screens like a glorious golden goose, making Riggan a worldwide celebrity and launching the cinema superhero genre we're so familiar with today. Robert Downey Jr., Christian Bale and the rest should be paying Riggan royalties, for cryin' out loud.
But Riggan turned his back on Birdman decades ago, believing that he was meant to do more with his career than run around in a suit full of high-tech fletching. And now, losing hair and gaining pounds, he has one last chance to prove himself to be an honest-to-goodness actor here on a dingy corner of the Great White Way.
Long ago, Riggan received a note from celebrated writer Raymond Carver complimenting his thespian abilities. It inspired Riggan to keep to the craft. Now, in an expensive act of homage, Riggan has adapted Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" to the stage—a production which Riggan produces, directs and stars in. He's given everything to it—his time, his talent, his money, perhaps even his sanity—in a bid to put Birdman behind him and prove Carver's faith in him was not misplaced.
It's not going well. He's running out of cash. His girlfriend and co-star, Laura, announces she's pregnant. His daughter and assistant, Sam, is still ticked pops sent her to rehab. He landed a certifiable Broadway luminary for one of the supporting roles, but the guy might be certifiably crazy, too.
And then there's Birdman himself—a tangible manifestation of all Riggan's insecurities, regrets and simmering rage—sitting on a couch or crouching on a toilet, growling recriminations and adulations in equal measure. You're better than these clowns. This play is a joke. You're a joke.
The show must go on, they say. And so Riggan soldiers through the nightmare, rehearsal after rehearsal, preview after preview. There is no Plan B—no movie scripts in the mailbox, no television show in the wings. This play is his everything. And perhaps if—no, when—it's a success, he'll finally feel vindicated, fulfilled, complete. He will soar again, this time as not just a fabricated superhero, but a validated actor.
And the Birdman in his dressing room will finally shut his beak.
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
For all his faults and narcissism, Riggan loves his daughter and still cherishes his ex-wife, Sylvia. He hasn't been a particularly good father, but we see him try to make it up to Sam as much as his self-obsession and play-driven panic allow him to. He hopes that being his assistant will give Sam direction in the wake of her rehab. He compliments her on her work. He apologizes to her for failing as a father. Sam rejects Riggan's efforts at every turn at first. But then Mike, the celebrated Broadway actor, asks her the worst thing Riggan did to make her hate him so.
"He was never there!" she complains. And then when he stares at her, waiting for more, she says that it drove her crazy, how he always tried to make up for his absence by "constantly trying to convince me that I was special …"
She trails off, realizing that, perhaps, her dad wasn't as bad as she thinks. And it sparks at least the hope of some form of reconciliation.
Arguably, Birdman's biggest conflict is between Riggan's own insecurity and ego. One side of him feels woefully undone in the midst of Broadway's storied trappings. The other—voiced by Birdman—believes it's all beneath him. He was a star, after all. And on some level, Birdman believes that should mean he's something akin to a god.
Riggan's flickering sense of power sometimes manifests in the form of telekinesis. When we first see him, he's meditating in his underwear—floating a foot off the floor. When he throws a fit in his dressing room, he tears it apart by merely pointing a finger. When he fights with his daughter, he slowly twirls a cigarette case with his mind. He flies at one point.
As a counterpoint, Sam stresses how insignificant we all are. In rehab, she was required to make dashes on rolls of toilet paper—each dash representing a thousand years of the supposedly billions that the universe has been around. A handful of TP squares represents the 150,000 years of human existence. To her, Riggan is way too full of himself. "You're scared to death like the rest of us that you don't matter!" she accuses.
When Mike's first brought into Riggan's play, he's in a relationship with Lesley, one of Riggan's co-stars. Someone asks Lesley how she knows Mike, and she says they "share a vagina." As lovers in the play as well, one scene requires they be in bed together. During a preview performance, Mike asks Lesley to have sex with him for real on stage—for the sake of making the performance as "honest" as possible. (She refuses.) We see (through underwear) that he is aroused.
A mishap forces Riggan to run around outside in his underwear as tourists and theatergoers gawk and take pictures. There's talk of affairs and erectile dysfunction, incest and sexual abuse, along with sexual acts, body parts and predilections (including someone's pornographic collection of "nuns in diapers"). Sam and Mike flirt, kiss and make out, and she watches him disrobe for costume measurements. (We see his bare backside.) Lesley also undresses in the costume area, revealing her bra. When Laura tells Riggan she's pregnant, she pulls his hand to her crotch and breast. The two kiss several times. Lesley also winds up kissing Laura.
Riggan and Mike get into a comical punching-and-shoving fight. (Mike is wearing only a pair of revealing swim trunks.) When Riggan demolishes his dressing room, the floor is left littered with wreckage and broken glass. Someone is knocked out and badly injured by a falling stage light.
We hear characters talk about how a fellow actor shot himself in the head and survived. "The blood coming out of his eye was the most honest thing he's done so far," we hear. The conversation foreshadows Riggan's own suicidal tendencies. He admits that when Sylvia caught him having sex with someone else, he went to the beach with the intention of drowning himself. He turned back when he was attacked by jellyfish. And when Riggan's at his lowest, we watch him jump off a building (only he flies instead of falling).
Sylvia tells Riggan she left him because "you threw a kitchen knife at me." Riggan lies about being beaten by his dad. There's a joke about Sam committing suicide. In a fantasy sequence-cum-action movie scene, mayhem ensues and helicopters explode. In the play, Riggan uses a fake gun to shoot himself in the head, spewing fake blood all over himself and his fellow actors. But on one occasion he trades the fake gun for a real one and winds up shooting off his nose. (After receiving a standing ovation, he's rushed to the hospital.)
Crude or Profane Language
More than 100 f-words and close to 50 s-words. We also hear multiple uses of "c--ks--ker," "d--k," "a--," "b--ch" and "h---." God's name is misused 15 or more times, often with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused two or three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Riggan finds one of Sam's hidden joints—which he finishes off. (He also smokes cigarettes.) Lesley wonders aloud whether Sam's so weird because of all the drugs she's used. Mike, who's supposed to be drunk during one of the play's scenes, replaces a fake bottle of liquor with a real one, pouring glass after glass during a performance. (He angrily breaks part of the set when Riggan takes the booze away.) Mike and Riggan go to a bar and order drinks. They talk about somebody else being drunk. Riggan tries to use alcohol to butter up a theater critic. (When he's rebuffed, he smashes a glass.)
Other Negative Elements
Before the action begins, Birdman audiences are treated to a poem snippet from Raymond Carver—said to be carved into his tombstone:
_And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth._
Riggan longs to feel beloved. He was and is celebrated as Birdman: People still ask him for autographs and pictures. But the days when he soared above the acting world are gone. And his life now is not enough. He laments that he is disappearing into himself. He wants to be loved once again.
"You confuse love with admiration," his ex-wife admonishes him, and it's true. His worth is set by a roomful of strangers. And to please them, anyone who might really love him was set aside like a piece of furniture.
There's a lot going on in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The movie ruminates on the tension between film and theater. It grapples with the irony of "honest" performances and dishonest lives. It asks us which is really more valid and valued: The review of one critic from The New York Times or the uninformed "shares" of millions on social networks. It even struggles with the lines between reality and fantasy.
Mostly, Birdman darts back and forth between love and admiration—that core disconnect between Riggan and those who want to care for him. Its end is deeply ambiguous. We're not told whether Riggan ever finds the peace he so desperately seeks, or whether he succumbs to his growling Birdman—sinking into insanity or oblivion or both.
The cinematic sex, drugs, alcohol, foul language and freaky, enigmatic worldview continually push moviegoers off balance, much as Riggan is himself. The attempt at resolution: Riggan is finally alone with his daughter so long estranged. She rests her head on his chest as he strokes her hair. Together for once. Together at last. She lets go of anger. He sets aside his craving for accolades. And for a moment, at least, they are father and daughter again, counting themselves beloved.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson; Emma Stone as Sam; Edward Norton as Mike; Naomi Watts as Lesley; Andrea Riseborough as Laura; Zach Galifianakis as Jake; Amy Ryan as Sylvia
October 17, 2014