Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.
At his peak, Michael Keaton was one of Hollywood’s most reliably weird actors. Keaton has a unique energy that, when tapped properly, helps create unique characters. For some reason, Keaton’s career took a dive in the 90s, and while he’s been able to do good work in smaller supporting roles, it’s been far too long since someone gave Keaton a juicy lead role.
Maybe what the actor needed was something tailored specifically to him, because it’s hard to think of any other actor filling the lead of Birdman quite like Keaton. While I’d hesitate to suggest that Keaton and the character of Riggan Thomson are one and the same, both are known primarily for a superhero they played decades earlier. In Thomson’s case, he’s writing, directing and starring in a new play that’s meant to bring him a respectability he craves. Because as we all know, real artistic respectability comes from The Theatre, not Hollywood.
Yeah. The film may be a showcase for Keaton, but it’s also a skewering of sorts aimed both at the Hollywood blockbuster and critics (primarily Broadway critics, but it’s easy to expand the target to critics in general). Birdman is a smart satire aimed at the broader entertainment industry, and coming largely from the perspective of the questionably insane Thomson, it’s admittedly a little hard to keep track of everything through one viewing. Repeat viewings may be required.
Fortunately, the cast helps sell the material. Aside from Keaton, who’s doing the best work he’s done in years, Birdman also pulls particularly strong performances from Edward Norton as a big-name actor brought in to help boost the show, only to bring a particular strain of instability and unpredictability to the show, and Emma Stone as Thomson’s daughter, whose substance abuse issues may be tied into some daddy issues.
The film does end on a rather absurd note, and I’m not sure how much I buy it. Then again, this isn’t exactly a film that would work with a more conventional end, and I’m not sure I could suggest anything that would work better. Birdman demands a lot from its audience, but it gives a lot in return.