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Movie Review - Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

George Reeves.


I know dropping this name probably spoils the ending to Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)…or does it? Yeah…it does and I’ll explain in a bit. But that name kept creeping up in my head, especially after the movie’s end. [Aaaaaand that’s now the SECOND movie review you’ve opened by spoiling the ending. Good job there. – Ed.]

First thing’s first, let me get out of the way that yeah, I was kinda disappointed that Birdman has absolutely no connection to the old Hanna Barbera superhero turned fill in talk show host (taking over from Space Ghost from time to time) turned Attorney at Law. This Birdman is an amalgam of the superheroes from the latest craze of multi-million dollar motion pictures that have seemingly conquered the Cineplex. And, if you’ve even just glanced at the other movie reviews on this site, you know I’m a fan of the genre. That said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have these films taken down a notch. Thankfully, Birdman doesn’t limit its parody, satire and criticism to just this one topic but instead attacks as much of the entertainment industry as possible: the aforementioned multi-million dollar films, actors, critics, Broadway vs Film, audiences and their expectations…and I’m sure there’s other stuff I’m forgetting too.

The film focuses on the efforts of one Riggan Thompson to write, direct and star in a Broadway play. Riggan is on the downside of his career and is mostly remembered for starring in a string of Superhero films, the titular Birdman. We meet Riggan in meditation, levitating in mid-air, all the while being criticized by his inner Birdman. These inner arguments between the two run throughout the film, as do hints that Riggan may or may not have the powers of his most famous role (telekinesis and flight being the most featured). Taking a side in that argument doesn’t detract from the movie at all, as believing Riggan does indeed have those powers puts a fantastic spin on what some may view as a genre that’s starting to get old and believing Riggan is just imagining all these things is still amusing in an “so this must be what the 70s and maybe even the 80s were like for Adam West” sort of way. The film closes in such a way that maybe…just maybe…Riggan COULD fly, but…nope. I don’t think so. Why? Well, I can recount from my own personal experience why I think that’s the case, but, in case the opening didn’t spoil the movie enough for you, well…you’ve been warned. At the end of the film, Riggan’s in the hospital after a failed on-stage suicide attempt…in which he ends up shooting his nose off. I…don’t get that. Even if you’re doing the stereotypical gun barrel to the temple deal (which you can live through, by the way), how do you miss so badly that you…okay, I just can’t resist…blow your nose? Anyway, so Riggan’s in the hospital and decides to climb up and out of the window and ‘take flight’. His daughter comes in soon afterward, is first distressed, then, upon looking out the window, laughs…then the movie fades to black. This makes you think, hey, maybe he did take flight. And he did…right down to the ground floor. See, in the immediate seconds after my late sister lost her battle with cancer, as family gathered around, a voiced called out “Does anyone have a gun? We need to do a double-tap here just to make sure she doesn’t get back up!” That was me. And no, I wasn’t chased out of the room for being an insensitive prick. Also no, it wasn’t because I had any ill feelings toward my sister. Upon moving away from Ohio, I called her at least once a week and then daily after she was diagnosed with cancer. I paid for her and her fiancée to take a trip out to visit me in Arizona and while she was out there, she chose to get married, just to make sure I’d be there for it. But humor is a coping mechanism. And, contrary to the evidence on this website [Hey! Only I’m allowed to take pot shots at you! – Ed.], apparently I can be hilarious in person. And some members of my grieving family started to chuckle. Her husband will still mention to me that “that was pretty damned good”. I imagine something similar is going through his daughter’s mind as she looks out the window and then laughs. Maybe she thought of something along the lines of “Dude…dad…looks like you bought your own press,” or “damn, turns out Birdman can’t fly after all,” and so on.

Back to George Reeves. Why did my mind dwell on him while watching this movie? [Aside from the fact that you seemingly try to squeeze Superman into everything on this website? – Ed.] Okay, guilty, but still. There are parallels, dammit. In the scenes where Riggan interacts with anyone outside of his theater production, and sometimes even with them, all he’s identified with is his work as Birdman. For that reason, he’s never taken seriously, most notably by the bitchy critic. This echoes George Reeves’ career. Once he was Superman, he was never taken seriously as an actor ever again. Also, while this analogy breaks free of the tragic fate of both Riggan and Reeves, I have to say that the casting director scored a coup getting Michael Keaton. I mean, sure, there’s the fact that he’s got past experience working and acting in constricting superhero outfits, but also there’s an interview with him that I recall from sometime around the making of or release of Batman Returns where he finds it kinda sad that when someone recognizes him on the street that all they can think to say is “Hey, Batman!”. I’ll admit that yes, he pretty much fell off my radar after the first two Batman films, but that wasn’t so much a function of me thinking of him only as Batman as opposed to him just acting in films that either were of no interest to me or just low on my cinematic to-do list. But even in his career, he ran the risk of being typecast…as I’m sure it’s a very real risk for anyone that either dons the tights or inhabits an iconic role. A recent example? Notice how all of Liam Neeson’s movies ever since the first Taken came out all sound A LOT like Taken? To steer this back on track though, the other things that echo George Reeves are the means of suicide selected by Riggan. Having been born well after Reeves’ suicide yet watching the show in syndication, sure, you learn that the guy who played Superman committed suicide…but we’re also talking pre-internet days here. [Dude, you know you’re dating yourself, right? – Ed.] It’s not like I could consult the wiki or the Google back then, so you rely on hearsay. The two things that I’d heard were that A) he thought he could fly so he jumped out the window and B) that he thought he could stop a bullet and was shot. While A turned out to be false, B was almost right…but way more complicated. Yes, Reeves was fatally shot, but as to who did it, well, it’s a real ‘whodunit’. Although ruled a suicide, let us simply say that there are enough mitigating circumstances to cast at least a faint shadow of doubt over that. For the Hollywood-ized version of the tale, check out Hollywoodland starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane (who’d eventually go on to be Martha Kent) and soon to be Batman Ben Affleck as George Reeves [he’s a one-man crossover! – Ed.].

But, hey, what do you say we get back to talking about this movie, huh? The film and its cast go above and beyond with regard to giving their characters dimension. Sure, as a parody/critique/satire, it could have easily gone down the caricature route, but every ‘type’ that the movie pokes fun at is also given some humanity. Yes, Edward Norton plays an over-the-top, what’s-my-motivation, in-search-of-truth shitstain of an actor, but there’s a scene where Emma Stone’s character, Riggan’s daughter, is desperately trying to get him to have sex with her…and he passes. He sees it for the act of both rebellion and attention-getting and avoids the trap. Sure, that doesn’t redeem the character, but it does make the reader sit back and be at least a little relieved. “Good, he’s not the complete and utter douchebag I thought he was.” The aforementioned critic? Complete and utter bitch devoid of any humanity, feeling or empathy, stuck in her own safe and orderly world shored up by her own impossibly high standards…until you find out that in spite of her intentions, she ends up writing a marvelously positive review or Riggan’s play. Keaton’s performance as both Riggan and his alter-ego Birdman, both in person and inner voice, is fantastically hilarious…yet poignant and human when it needs to be. In a rare moment, we see Zack Galifianakis in a mostly straightman type of role as Riggan’s producer…and I always like to see things like that. Sure, he’s funny at times in this, but he’s a far cry from his Hangover role here, and it’s great to see. Emma Stone plays Riggan’s clearly damaged but not irredeemable daughter…and let’s face it, I’ve liked her in everything I’ve seen her in since Zombieland because for one, yeah, she’s hot and two, well, she doesn’t annoy the fuck out of you or unknowingly projects a ditzyness or…hell, I dunno…she just seems real every time I see her, and really, that’s all you can ask of an actor or actress, right? Yeah, there are other cast members I’m forgetting to highlight here but the main thing is that in a film like this, where EVERYONE has to walk the razor’s edge for the satire to really pay off, there really isn’t a single misstep among them.

All that said, there is one really big flaw with this movie. It’s not a deal-breaker…but damn near. Note: to anyone in the future that thinks that a drum solo score is a good idea (and why do I have the feeling that Hans Zimmer is sitting in a studio thinking that very thought…) I will hunt you down and perform a drum solo score on your damn head with @#$%ing ball-peen hammers. [Hey, watch your god%$#@ cartoon language – Ed.] Sometimes it works, I’ll give it that. It does convey the energy of Broadway and the chaos of backstage very well [Speaking from experience are we? Of course not. – Ed.], but dear God, this shit goes on for the ENTIRE movie. Look, I get it when I come out of a Michael Bay movie with a headache. I should’ve known what I was walking into, the cinematic equivalent of going off to war, and shouldn’t be surprised that hearing loss and head pain are the side effects. But if I’m starting to get a headache just after the opening credits? That’s a problem. So…Antonio Sanchez? Man…I hope you don’t live near a Home Depot…just sayin’.

Another thing that helps contribute life and chaos to the film is the way it’s shot...the thing that comes to my mind first and foremost is the long cuts winding through the backstage areas following some of the characters. Again, it gives you the feeling that you’re there. In contrast, the film just as deftly transitions to Riggan’s Birdman fantasies with explosions, CGI monsters and all the big-budget fare we’ve come to know and grow numb to. This juxtaposition and how it’s played and integrated into the narrative is yet another device that helps this film stay on that razor thin line that great parodies and satires have to walk. It’s a shame that the paragraph of this review that deals with one of the film’s most important aspects is so short, but that’s the thing about great visuals, I’m not going to sit here and drain the life out of ‘em by describing them to you! Plus, hey, the director is also responsible for everything I’ve written about above, so I’ve given the man his due. That said, Alejandro Inarritu? Man…I hope you don’t live near a Home Depot…just sayin’. [Repeat threats…you’re hoping this takes off, aren’t you? Sorry, just doesn’t have the same ring as “You stand accused,” or “You have failed this city”. – Ed]

While all of the above is positive, and for me, yes, I thought this movie was pretty good, I can tell you it’s not for everyone. Don’t walk into it thinking it’s going to be your standard superhero fare and don’t be too serious about yourself or what you watch or what you enjoy. To restate from the beginning of this review, this film has enough jabs for not only the entertainment industry but for all of us that feed it as well. If you can take the shots and laugh them off, or at the very least snort and say ‘Good one, man,’ then yeah, check this out.

And hey, this is the first time for quite a while that I’ve not only watched a film that won Best Picture, but actually liked it! Maybe the End Times are on their way after all…

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