I don’t usually start my movie reviews by talking about the end of the movie, but with Birdman that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The audience’s reaction when the closing credits started to roll was to sit there absolutely frozen to their seats without anyone making a sound. I’ve never seen people behave quite this way before. But I too, reacted in the same manner. Why did I just sit there with my dropped jaw starting at the screen? The only answer I have is that at the end of the film, I just had no idea what to make of it. It wasn’t a question of whether the movie was good or bad, but rather “What was it?”
The basic plot of Birdman is a simple story about an aging actor, Riggan Thomson, who is trying to reinvent his career in movies by staring in and directing a Broadway show about a man’s relationship to an unfaithful wife. Within the movie, you were shown the final scene in the play over and over (although it changed dramatically each time).
While approaching opening night, Thomson (Michael Keaton) works through his real life relationships with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), daughter (Emma Stone), producer (Zach Galifianakis), film critic (Lindsay Duncan), and his co-star, an arrogant, self-centered, narcissistic actor (Edward Norton). Basically, all the relationships just continue to spiral downhill.
Fine, all of this makes sense as a movie plot and since the acting and photography is exceptional, it all makes for a very good film. Thing is, in the background of all of this you are given a look into the mind of Thomson, the lead character. Thomson is involved in a running discussion with the last successful character (Birdman) he portrayed in a superhero-type movie 20 years earlier. There are also several scenes involving telekinesis and the ability to fly (that you assume are just fantasies) where you, the viewer, have a free reign to decide what it all means.
The special thing (that is a bit unnerving) is that when this type of consciousness has been done in other movies, the viewer is always aware of when the character is in the real world versus when they are experiencing a flashback. In Birdman, reality and the past are blended together and become all part of the supposed present. In other words, it is nearly impossible for the viewer to tell what is real in the character’s mind versus what he imagines is happening. I would guess, however, that it would just be easier for you to go see the movie than to understand what I am trying to say.
Basically, the movie revolves around all the emotions a man experiences as he ages (and becomes a geezer) and starts to feel he is beyond his prime. He is dealing with getting a Broadway play up and running, an out-of-control actor, and an important film critic who resents him because he has a “movie” background. He constantly deals with the past where he hasn’t been a significant actor for many years, had a failed marriage to a woman he still loves, and has a disappointing relationship with his daughter.
In the end, all of this works—I think. The acting is excellent and it passes the critical litmus test (you forget you are watching actors). You are stymied at times, but if you work at it a bit, you can put it all together and make sense of it all. Be forewarned however, what makes sense to you may not make sense to others (including your wife). But the best thing is, in the end, you know you have had a new and different movie experience. Birdman is a movie a few viewers will shake their head at, but it will be memorable for many others. The audience’s reaction at the end of the movie was just everyone trying to figure out just what type of experience it was for each of them—intriguing isn’t it.
In a year of an exceptional lack of any demonstration of actors actually being able to act, Birdman should give Michael Keaton a good shot at an Oscar.