Michael Keaton as Riggan and Edward Norton as Mike, fellow actors putting on a stage show in Birdman. Photograph: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has a reputation for hugely ambitious works, notably Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), and the monumental Babel (2006), which stretched around the globe from Southern California to the mountains of North Africa and the skyscrapers of Tokyo.

His latest, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is confined to New York’s St. James Theatre and neighboring Times Square yet is equally ambitious and defiantly melodramatic. We know we are in for cinematic razzle-dazzle from the opening moments: the alphabetically sequenced red-letter credits, a mysterious comet-like object shooting through clouds, and then the hero, his back to us, clad only in white underpants and suspended in the air. Complex comic pathos unfolds for more than two hours, with a cast of characters almost all of whom are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Birdman is a memorable feast for cinephiles, with one unforgettable scene after another.

The movie features an aging Hollywood box office legend, Riggan Thomson, who made his reputation playing Birdman, a comic book character who can fly. Riggan is now trying to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play, all to prove to himself and to the world that he can act. Of course New York’s literati are skeptical; the New York Times critic is sharpening her teeth before the opening, preparing to destroy him.

Michael Keaton, who plays Riggan, is acting a version of his own biography. Keaton is a man with a permanent chip on his shoulder: resentful, quirky, barely able to suppress his demons. He began his show business career as a gofer on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. His first break came in Beetlejuice (1988), and he took a giant leap into stardom after director Tim Burton chose him as an unlikely Batman. Together they launched the billion-dollar franchise. When Burton bowed out of the third Batman film, Keaton did too, despite being offered millions of dollars. He slipped off Hollywood’s celebrity radar and was all but forgotten, but Birdman redeems his career as an actor. He plays this version of himself to perfection.

Birdman is also a version of Iñárritu’s story. His own career had fallen into a dry spell, but he was too ambitious and creative to make comic book movies. Birdman restores Iñárritu to the A-list of international filmmakers who march to their own drummer rather than the bottom line of movie magnates. One can only wonder what he and Keaton must have been feeling when they met to discuss the script.

• • •

The details of the plot are often unclear, but the opening scene sets the stage. When we meet our hero suspended in the air, the voice of his alter ego is complaining, “What are we doing in this dump?” Apparently Riggan could still be an international box office hit; if he were not trying to prove his acting chops, he could be making a fourth Birdman and enjoying the celebrity and millions that come with it. That is what his alter ego wants him to do.

Riggan wants more, and, ironically, his Birdman persona enables him: he can levitate and move objects about in his dressing room. Iñárritu lets us wonder, are we inside Riggan’s consciousness witnessing his imaginings? Is this the filmmaker’s version of magic realism? Or is it meant to keep the audience on the edge of their suspended disbelief? These questions will come up again and again in the film. Early on, for example, Riggan decides that one of the actors is terrible and must be gotten rid of. When his friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) insists it is too late for that, a heavy arc light falls on the actor’s head, and Jake mutters, “That was no accident.”

A crisis of self-esteem plagues all actors, addicts dependent on the next round of applause.

At one level, Birdman is Riggan’s omnipotent self, the empowering pole of a bipolar character. But the role is also the cage of stardom he is trying to escape to prove he has talent. Certainly one of Birdman’s themes is the crisis of self-esteem that plagues all actors, addicts dependent on the next round of applause. These vulnerable egos are exposed in each of the actors who take the stage of the St. James in Birdman.

Riggan’s project is born of desperation and grandiosity. Psychologists characterize his stage in the lifecycle as one of integrity versus despair. His plan is to write, direct, and star in a serious Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” In doing so, Riggan aims to demonstrate his abilities to the world, thereby proving his integrity and warding off his despair. But we are given no reason to believe Riggan is capable of writing a play. The whole project is the kind of extravagant gamble typical of people with bipolar disorder. His alter ego might be right: they would be better off doing a Birdman sequel. Indeed, at low points during rehearsals Riggan becomes Birdman and flies over Manhattan. Can he fly, or will he fall to his death as he leaps from the roof of a building? It is a vivid analogy for the gamble he is taking on the stage of the St. James.

• • •

Riggan and his Birdman alter ego would seem to supply enough plot for a movie, but there is much more happening on the stage of the St. James—in the chaos of rehearsals. The fragile egos of all the actors are on display. Riggan is involved in a tangled web of relationships with each of them. They all talk about their failures and disappointments in love.

There is Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is having an affair with Riggan and may be pregnant by him. Theirs is a love-hate relationship. There is Lesley (Naomi Watts), his protégée, making her first Broadway appearance, thrilled and terrified at fulfilling her dream. She is living with Mike (Edward Norton), who fills in for the mysteriously head-bonked actor. Norton’s performance is nothing less than a tour de force. He is arrogant, brash, impulsive, cocksure—so alive on the stage—but in real life he knows he is inadequate. A hyped-up method actor, he constantly challenges and provokes Riggan, and then ends up getting it on with Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), a real addict just out of rehab. She hangs around the St. James as a gofer for her father, who is trying to give her something useful to do. Iñárritu also uses Sam for thematic reasons: she represents the young generation whose life is defined by what happens on YouTube and Twitter, where neither serious theater nor Birdman make much of a stir. She is bored and unimpressed with her father and his undertaking.

In one unforgettable scene, Riggan steps out of the back door of the theater for a smoke during a premiere performance. He is wearing a bathrobe over those white underpants. The door slams shut, catching the bathrobe. Riggan is trapped outside; he has just minutes before his cue. Pulling himself out of the bathrobe, he parades through Times Square to the theater’s front door, eliciting all sorts of reactions from the mob of tourists. Some of them recognize Birdman; others use their cellphones to video this crazy man in his underwear. It is a nightmare of public humiliation for an actor who is consumed by that very fear. He is at the other pole of his bipolar disorder. He walks into the St. James and down the aisle in his briefs, on time for his cue. The next day his daughter is finally impressed: he has hundreds of thousands of hits on social media and is becoming a legend in her world. His humiliation was a triumph.

• • •

The film overflows with such psychological hijinks, issuing from preposterous incidents. And all of it happens at breakneck speed. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, just off an Oscar for Gravity (2013), has filmed Birdman as though it were one long unbroken take. The camera seems to rush up and down the corridors and spaces of the St. James Theatre as it follows the frantic actors.

But if it is frantic, surreal, and fantastic, it is also new and original, despite its melodramatic clichés. It even has a surprise ending. Desperate to impress and ready to die, Riggan appears to shoot himself in the head at the end of opening night. There is shocked silence. But then the audience rises to give him a standing ovation as the Times critic rushes up the aisle to file a rave review: he has brought new blood to the theater. It is in her review, I think, that we see briefly the phrase “the unexpected virtue of ignorance,” which serves as the film’s subtitle. If I am right, the critic is saying the play was a great success, but Riggan is a fool.

The film doesn’t end there. The next scene is in the hospital. Riggan’s play is sold out, a smash hit. His daughter loves him, and he is recovering from surgery to repair his nose, part of which he shot off. When he is alone, Birdman opens the hospital window and leaps out. Does he fall to his death, or does he fly away? What is Iñárritu’s answer? Riggan’s daughter rushes in, looks down in fear, and then up as a smile forms on her face. This is not psychological resolution of the plot. It is more a leap of imagination: an appropriate ending for Iñárritu’s film and Keaton’s wondrous performance, and a reminder that cinema is not just truth. It is magic.