Woke up feeling light, thought I could fly, went for a jog instead. Stay grounded, I thought. Am I the anti-R Kelly? He’s referenced in the film Birdman, which–it was suggested–I should write about. Therapists, I replied, should write more about films, art in general. So I will.
Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, sits in his room (levitating, actually), looking like he woke up on the right side, also feeling light, though he is yet to take off. Nor is he grounded exactly. The earth, his world, seems too constrictive for that. Within moments, his meditation is broken and he is stomping through tight hallways, talking frenetically with anxious producers, a broadway debutante actress, as well as a second actress, his apparently pregnant girlfriend. He is less conversant with his recovering addict daughter Sam, played by cat-eyed Emma Stone, who brings serious chip to her chip-on-the-shoulder role. Thomson is a mess. He is washed up, an ex-superhero star (The Birdman) who now seeks respectability and depth in Hollywood’s darker sibling, the theater. And the culture of theater is less glamorous: it is dirty, claustrophobic, and peopled with either non-entities (the anonymous stage crew), or the impossibly self-absorbed. Thomson at once fits in and doesn’t, but he’s bought in. In fact, he’s invested all he’s got into this play which is an adaptation of a short story by his one-time idol, Raymond Carver. So committed is he that he’s willing to assault, perhaps even kill the mediocre actor who is fucking up rehearsals. In this respect, he is no less driven than the abusive Terrance Fletcher character from Whiplash, though he seems more transparently fragile–insecure, even psychotic.
The Hollywood past doesn’t leave him alone. It stalks him in the form of hallucinations, the Birdman alter-ego whose appearances bring to mind the imaginary friend character of Beautiful Mind, though unlike that film, it’s clear from the outset that Thomson is–what?–at least troubled. But he’s not alone in his craziness, which makes things very interesting. All of the support characters are fucked up also, to more or lesser degrees. One character who seems even crazier than Thomson is Mike Shiner, played by Ed Norton. Shiner is the man Thomson might have been ten years earlier: cocky, gifted, uncontrollable, exhibitionist in all ways, so out there that he disguises his underlying fears, of inadequacy and impotence. His act, both on and off stage, is ingenious, and in an oedipal/electra nod, Sam is of course drawn to him.
Shiner’s addition to the play brings it to a new level. He is box office potential, but also hip, in with the critics, who seem to despise Thomson, especially a bitter, spinster-like figure who hangs out in a bar across from the theater, awaiting his opening night like a vulture. Meanwhile, the previews, as in that strange, half-price experimental stage of live production, are falling apart. But that’s okay according to Shiner, who schools the outsider Thomson on what is important, what is real. What evolves is a play that dissolves the fourth wall between artist and audience, just as Keaton and director Inarritu flirt with our wall with their Birdman/Batman parallel. The climax of this path is an accident. In between scenes during the last preview, he heads outside for a smoke break, but locks himself out of the theater. Next, he is wandering through Times Square in his underwear, dodging onlookers and voyeurs in what becomes a serendipitous publicity sensation. This wasn’t what he wanted, however, and afterwards he confronts the hateful critic in the bar, appealing to her sense of fair play, her compassion for the struggling artist. But she’ll have none of it. Convinced he is a charlatan, she pledges to “kill” his play.
At this point everyone–Shiner, Sam, the producer, cast and crew–think he’s delusional, not dealing with reality, though they don’t know the half of it. With opening night upon them, Thomson has one more trick up his sleeve, one more flight of fancy: an on stage suicide that will blow everyone’s mind, even Shiner’s, as well as his brains out. It doesn’t come off (actually, only part of his nose comes off as a result of the on stage gunshot), but the play does, and even the hateful critic can’t resist the uberrealism, ultimately giving Thomson a rave review. The following day, he is in hospital, recovering from his wounds; meanwhile, the press, the internet public, his producer, are all excited because the play is a triumph. Thomson is not excited, however. Ambiguously disappointed, he removes his bandages, inspects his face in the mirror, and steps out the high rise hospital window. This possibility, of Thomson’s suicide, persists throughout the film and remains until the last shot, wherein we see Sam gazing out the open window, first in frantic abandonment, then in wonder. She believes he can fly.
If you’ve ever felt like a poseur, a madman or woman, a capable person but sometimes a dufus, you should like what Birdman is about. Check it out.