I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) for the first time when one of my Couchsurfing hosts in Los Angeles asked me to join him for a pre-screening at the Landmark Theater, one of the best cinemas in LA according to TimeOut. Aside from the hip cinema cocktail bar, watching a film in such circumstances is probably something I will never be able to do again: here is my (spoiler-free) review of Birdman, a movie that, at the time, I thought didn’t even exist.
Birdman is a black comedy with a star-studded cast including Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts. Keaton plays the washed-up Riggan Thomas, a former Hollywood household name famous for playing the superhero “Birdman” now on the desperate hunt for critic appraisal through a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. Wink wink: Keaton’s Batman was one of his most famous roles, so most people say he’s playing himself in an attempt to win back the critics, in what looks like a bi-dimensional mind-fuck.
The film is split between what appears to be reality – the play, Riggan’s difficulty to cope with the actors, with journalists and with his personal life – and Riggan’s imagination. Throughout his off-stage life, the voice of Birdman torments and criticises Riggan: the superhero actually follows him around as he imagines himself performing levitation and telekinesis.
Riggan’s best friend and lawyer Jake (Galifianakis) produces the play, which stars Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Riseborough) and first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Watts). Riggan’s daughter Sam (Stone), a recovering addict, is also involved as his assistant. This straining work/life clash becomes even more complicated when brilliant but volatile method actor Mike (Norton) seems to upstage Riggan.
The whole plot focuses on the clash between doing something because you believe in it, or doing something to “matter”, whether to the public, to the critic, to someone in your life or to yourself. Emma Stone’s character, Sam, delivers the most current line you can find on camera right now when her father tells her he’s trying to stage a play that “means something”:
Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.
The film is a tad long but, through a series of spot-on dialogues and an amazing scene of Michael Keaton walking across Times Square in his boxes, it becomes a satire of our times and of the feeling of not existing if you’re not part of today’s media and social media.
This is what makes the way I watched Birdman even more unique. I basically hadn’t heard of it. I didn’t know it existed. Despite being a movie junkie, I hadn’t watched the trailer, because the film has just been released in Europe. I hadn’t read a summary of the plot. I hadn’t decided to watch it because someone else’s interpretation made me feel that it mattered. And I made my own mind up about the movie – I loved it – without intermediation, something that hardly happened before because of the reviews overload.
Birdman spoke to me without someone telling me it would – nice to know that, ultimately, things still matter even if you’re not supposed to believe they do… although now I’m telling you that it’s good and that it does matter. Mind-fuck no.2.