Birdman: Or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), starring Michael Keaton is a palpably felt exploration of drama as a function of existential crisis. It also explores the vanishing seams of art and the culture in which it is situated prompting to the viewer to ponder where one stops and the other begins. The relationship of criticism to art is also explored.
Birdman features an aging protagonist, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) who is perhaps slightly beyond middle-age and who is desperately struggling to find integrity and truth through art with his Broadway stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love.” He is also the father to a somewhat broken daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), a twenty-something who is in recovery from drug addiction and with whom his relationship is somewhat strained.
Amidst the (perhaps conspicuously serendipitous—as no love is to be lost due to his absence) injury to one of Thompson’s actors, a replacement actor, Mike (Edward Norton), is brought on. Mike’s reputation precedes him in more ways than one as critics celebrate him nearly universally yet those who have had to share a stage with him lament him almost as much for being notoriously difficult to work with. Acting alongside Mike are Thompson’s girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) as well as an aspiring Broadway actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is making her Broadway debut and who shares romantic as well as professional ties with Mike. Off-stage, in addition to his cast-mates and at-times-less-than-amicable daughter, Thompson is joined by his friend and lawyer, Jake (Zack Gallifinakis) who is producing the play and as such has a vested interest in how many seats are filled each night and in some cases, by whom, given the publicity certain audience-goers will bring to the event (or simply the way their perceived attendance—whether in fact actual or not—will help to sustain Thompson’s morale--at one point Thompson is even teased, with the convenient name-drop of the “Scorcez” [as it is glibly and smugly pronounced through a confident lean back and teeth that are clenched in a type of Cheshire grin]).
Riggan Thompson also must struggle against the negatively predisposed critical response set forth in somewhat ad hominem fashion because of his previous celebrity having been derived from playing “Birdman”—a high-flying comic book superhero who seems to embody the plebian blockbuster sensibility so firmly eschewed by the critical elite. In particular, Thompson must weather the a priori critical scorn of a prominent reviewer for the New York Times who seems to react to Thompson’s play and its surrounding hoopla as more the spectacle of a has-been actor, in his post-fame throes than as a legitimate work of art wrought from a place of passion and integrity.
The sound design and camerawork of this picture are technical marvels as the film’s first forty-five-or-so minutes appear as one continuous take and are complimented by a superbly crafted blend of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. At certain points a frenetic percussive beat seems to be laid upon the film’s world as it would seem to have no reasonable origin in the action that is unfolding on-screen and yet in the next moment is revealed to have boomingly emanated from a marching band that just happens to be passing through Times square, justifying, then, these sounds that the audience member is hearing as belonging squarely to the reality of the film’s world. The remarkable fluidity of the film’s more sensorial elements gives the audience member pause to contemplate whether art imitates life, life imitates art or even if the two might deceptively belong to one and the same side of a proverbial Mobius strip in spite of their seeming convergence to an edge as themselves disparate surfaces.
In addition to exploring the “about”-ness of art, as it might pertain to life, the “about”-ness of criticism as it might pertain to art is also plumbed throughout. Tucked away in the corner of Thompson’s mirror is an index card upon which is plainly written the proverb, “A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing.” This sentiment echoes throughout many of the film’s sequences as the effects of “labeling” (as Thompson at one point disgustedly puts it) art and what that might reveal about the character of said “labeler” are weaved unabashedly into the content of several of the story’s relationships as well as the substance of character for its principal as well as supporting acts.
As the complex and pathos-evoking lead character in this intimately woven and darkly comic drama, Keaton gives an extraordinary performance that leaves him well-deserving of the Academy’s nod for “Best Actor” as well as for his past recognition at this year’s Golden Globes for “Best Actor in a Drama, Comedy or Musical.” Birdman also comes recommended on the aspects of its thoughtfully provocative content and uniquely compelling--as well as technically astonishing--presentation.