“Birdman” plot fails but acting flies

Nathan Fisher

After passing my film orals last week, I felt confident in my film analytic abilities and was ready to tackle “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” I’ve avoided this surreal and mind-bending dark comedy for weeks, but now was ready to tackle a movie that wasn’t the normal mindless entertainment. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The plot line of “Birdman” seems pretty basic. An aging actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), is trying to resurrect his career after playing the title character in three “Birdman” superhero movies 20 years ago. Attempting to redefine himself as a “real” actor, Riggan heads to Broadway starring in a play he directs, produces, and adapted.

“Birdman” begins three days before the opening of the play and we see Riggan is struggling to pull the actors and his personal life together––not an easy task. Conflict and chaos abound. Costar Mike (Edward Norton) seems to be stealing the show but also is a major draw to the theater, so he cannot be fired. Laura, Riggan’s possibly pregnant girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) is an emotional rollercoaster, and Lesley, first time Broadway actress (Naomi Watts) is entangled in a complicated relationship with Mike. Riggan’s relationship with his recovering drug addict daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) adds even more chaos to the mix. Alongside all the personal drama, Riggan’s best friend/lawyer/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tries to keep Riggan sane and out of bankruptcy.

The plot line of “Birdman” has the makings of your run-of-the-mill celebrity pathos story. However, normal is not in Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s playbook and “Birdman” is weird to say the least. There’s a strange supernatural element present throughout the film. Keaton’s character seems to have telekinetic powers when no one is looking and spends most of the film only wearing his tighty whities (ala Walter White in the first few episodes of “Breaking Bad”). Riggan also hears the voice of his old superhero character talking to him and sees the Birdman walking next to him or sitting on the toilet going to the bathroom. The film takes a strange twist when Keaton’s character wakes up with a hangover and starts to believe he is Birdman flying everywhere and stopping mass destruction.

All of this surreal chaos would have completely ruined the movie for me had it not been for the superb acting. Keaton and Norton in particular gave stellar performances as their characters struggle with who they are both on stage and in the real world. Emma Stone’s acting was spot on and her monologues grabbed me more than her eyes, which seemed to pop out of the screen. And Zach Galifianakis played the only sane person in the movie, which totally blew me away.

After the movie ended, I sat in my seat and wondered, “What the hell did I just watch?” Given time to process what happened in “Birdman,” I think I liked it more, but am not convinced I enjoyed it. As I already mentioned, the acting is hands down terrific. The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, won an Oscar for “Gravity”. He seemed to shoot the film in one take giving the feeling of a play. And the musical score featuring a single drummer made my toes tap.

Even with everything I liked about “Birdman,” the film is difficult to recommend. The movie seemed to have the temperament of Riggan’s girlfriend who constantly switches from a good mood to a bad move then all of a sudden slaps you in the face for no apparent reason. To enjoy the movie, you really need to be in the mindset where you can handle the crazy ride as well as Keaton occasionally screeching like a bird. So if you are up for a dark comedy that eventually rewards the audience after many surreal adversaries, “Birdman” is exactly the move to see.