You're scared to death - like the rest of us - that you don't matter. And you're right: You don't.

You’re scared to death – like the rest of us – that you don’t matter. And you’re right: You don’t.

There’s something to be said for being unaware. Human beings like getting from point A to point B without thinking about the route, the schedule, the mechanics of taking the steps. Often when we lose that unawareness, we begin to over think things. We become hyper-critical of ourselves and our world and find it hard to think about anything else. Does knowing too much about something breed contempt? Does seeing how the magic trick is performed ruin the illusion? Is there, in fact, virtue in ignorance?

Birdman is – was – Riggans Thomson (Michael Keaton). Twenty years ago, he was the star of a widely successful trilogy of superhero movies, but since then he has been down on his luck. In an effort to stage a comeback, Riggans adapts, directs, and stars in a broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. The film is produced by his best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis), co-stars his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and even allows for a job on the production team for his teenage daughter Sam (Emma Stone). But with previews about to begin, the play teeters on the brink of disaster…a situation a voice in Riggans’ head won’t let him forget.

With certain doom almost inevitable, Riggans’ co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) makes a suggestion. With an injured co-star needing to be replaced, Lesley wonders if her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) might fit the part. On Jake’s urging, Riggans agrees. It doesn’t take long into an impromptu audition for Riggans to see the possibilities that Shiner might bring to the production. But this is just the beginning of the end.

Everything that could go wrong does go wrong: Shiner starts crushing on Sam, Laura confesses that she’s pregnant, early reviews and interviews go terribly, Shiner takes previews and rehearsals in strange and selfish directions, an a critic named Tabitha seems to have her crosshairs set on Riggans.

When he was wearing a spandex suit and pretending to be a hero, it was all so simple. Now that he has to stand up and lay it all out there, Riggans is struggling to keep it together. How long until he snaps and signs on to do BIRDMAN: RESURRECTION?

 

Ed Norton and Emma Stone in Birdman
Late in BIRDMAN, Riggans has a conversation with Tabitha about her work as a critic. The scene will likely become a lightning rod for critical discussion on the film before long (if it hasn’t already). The moment is valid, since  – as much as many of us would like to argue otherwise – we often make up our minds about something before we’ve had a chance to experience it. What BIRDMAN seems to wonder is whether that is fair, and whether that is helpful? Lots of people become famous for very silly reasons. Sometimes though, they may want to parlay that fame into something else. Should we as audiences and critics allow them? Should we allow them to use their fame to do something special?

When the time comes to distinguish between being special and being famous, the choice for the critic is clear; Tabitha considers Riggans the former.

More than once, this film nudges the conversation towards artifice. As the final act begins, Riggans cuts along the edge of Times Square: perhaps the most artificial square city block in America. Surrounded by neon, pushing past tourists, ducking out of the way of buskers dressed as superheroes…and he does it in his socks and underwear. He could scarcely be more himself than he is in that moment, and yet he has to weave through whole waves of falseness to get back to doing something that will make him feel most authentic (specifically, pretending someone else).

This obsession with artifice is even reflected in the way the film is shot – seemingly one, long, continuous shot. I say “seemingly” because once one becomes aware of it, one starts looking for the cuts, and they become evident. But that raises the question; is there something authentic about artificiality? If so much effort has gone into making something fake seem real, shouldn’t it be held in the same way as the genuine article? Shouldn’t it, also, matter?

The characters in this film seem so hellbent on perception. Whether it’s Riggans trying to outrun the idea of him as a washed-up celebrity, or Shiner making mention of how new everything must look to Sam, or Tabitha discussing her role as a critic. So much of it is obsessed with how we are seen. We all want to feel like we matter, like we have a voice. Sometimes we even get a rise out of new connections and new audiences because it’s a chance to matter even more…or matter again. We can re-invent ourselves and become who we want to be, or we can show that all that practice paid off and be our best selves. However, it all depends on who’s watching…and what they think. And so it is with this film – it knows that we are watching, but doesn’t care what we think.

A movie like this dares us to hate it. It’s glossy, it’s witty, it’s directed within an inch of its life. In a real show of audacity, it doesn’t stop there, but instead begins to make us aware of it’s every theme, idea, motive, and trick. It has told The Wizard to tuck in his shirt, because the curtain is getting pulled back. The same way that the characters’ movements around the theatre clue us in to every prop, pulley, hand, and musician, BIRDMAN’s words and visions are designed to make us aware of any and all subtext. It’s cockiness posing as self-loathing, and in that finds a whole new layer of veracity. It is what it is, and becomes one of the rare films that doesn’t seem to care what we think of what it is.

Like the very visible sign on Riggan’s mirror says: “A thing is a thing – not what is said of that thing”

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on BIRDMAN.