Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) confronts the tragic story of a man on the downside of life’s Bell Curve. What happens when you become yesterday’s news?
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman examines a moment in life that nearly all of us must confront. Given that there is little or no intelligent preparation, how do we handle an aging process that leaves all of us wrestling with the feeling that our best days are far behind us? Remember Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954) when he made the agonizing statement, “I used to be somebody.”
The irony of Birdman is that you are left with the feeling that the plot actually reflects the professional life of its star, Michael Keaton. In the film, Mr. Keaton plays Riggan Thomas, a washed up movie actor who long ago found fame and fortune playing the role of Birdman, the functional equivalent of Batman.
In accepting this role, it is quite obvious that Mr. Keaton had to realize that he was embodying his own life story given the fact that he found early fame playing the original Batman (1989 and 1992), only to be left in the aftermath with a career that has left him largely on the fringes of the movie industry. Other than Beetlejuice (1988), name another Keaton film that you truly enjoyed.
Quite frankly, as I watched the film I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own lengthy career as a criminal defense lawyer. Given that it’s been over 40 years since I graduated from law school, what if I and my close friends had become the archaic symbol of the old guys who we used to make fun of when we first began our practice? How are you expected to handle experiences in a courtroom where you continually look at young deputy prosecutors and public defenders and mumble, “Who in the hell are these people?”
In Birdman, Mr. Keaton’s character is trying to reestablish a lost career with a Broadway play he is financing, directing and starring in. Seeking to regain some artistic praise, he is nonetheless haunted at every turn by his past. Though he still loves an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) who tries to root him on, that marital ship has sailed with their divorce. While his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) works for him in the play, she alternately hates herself and her father for never being around when it counted.
However, Mr. Keaton’s greatest problem comes from the fact that he is dancing on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. He repeatedly is discovered having a conversation with his Birdman persona, a dialog that results in destructive conduct that he believes Birdman is doing and not him.
Mr. Keaton’s performance is masterful, and it deserves to be recognized at least with a nomination at Oscar time. However, he is not alone given wonderful supporting performances by Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. They appear as Mike and Lesley, two other characters in the Broadway play.
Ms. Watts functions as an alter ego of Keaton in that she is seeking her initial breakthrough as a recognized actress. As for Mr. Norton, he is stunningly effective as an egotistical Broadway actor whose life off stage has all but lost any meaning.
While Zach Galifianakis is surprisingly good in a role where he is trying to keep both the play and its star from falling apart in the capacity as Keaton’s agent, Emma Stone gives a searing performance that is unforgettable. To begin with, you are left entranced by her gorgeous eyes. Still finding room to love her father, there is a dynamic moment when she tells him he is a lost cause given the fact that he has completely ignored both Facebook and Twitter. In a sense I felt she was talking to me given that I don’t access either one of them!
In a script where Iñárritu made a contribution, the film also had the courage to be shockingly critical of both movie stars and their critics. In particular, there is a brutal exchange between Keaton and a New York Times critic played by Anna Hardwick that all but dismisses both sides as complete irrelevant fools.
As the film continues to focus on Keaton’s mental stability, I couldn’t help but be reminded of advising many criminal clients over the years in a similar position. Faced in many of those cases with a life-altering decision, I asked them to imagine rejecting my advice and looking back on a life thrown away when they reach my age, now 67. Looking back from that vantage point, I simply confront them by asking wouldn’t they like me to reappear at that time with a magic wand and allow them to mutate back to their current age. In other words, wouldn’t they desperately want a chance to embrace life’s travails once again?
What a viewer of Birdman is reminded of is the fact that life is as incredibly short as is your time basking in the sunlight. Regardless of your profession, you will always be able to make significant contributions. Just have the strength to stop moaning over the fact that many people have stopped paying attention.