The mid-life crisis of an actor using a fantasy element that confuses the heck out of people.
Reggin (Michael Keaton) is taking his shot on Broadway with a play he’s adapted, directed, and produced. All the money he has left in the world is tied up in realizing his dream, a personal goal that had to do with why he became an actor. From fussing actors to cutthroat critics, everyone seems to be against him, even his estranged daughter (Emma Stone). But his biggest hurdle to overcome may be the man he once pretended to be, now a delusional personification of the pop culture movie franchise icon the world identifies Reggin with: Birdman.
This is the story of what many career actors fear, that this will happen to them or it’s who they’ll become. For the performance artist with big dreams – the same person who takes money to survive and accidentally gains the prestige that comes with so-called “overnight” success – this could be called “real life.” Anyone in television, film, or theater has met people like the characters in this story: the once-was who fears becoming the has-been, the professional non-professional that can’t be trusted whom you have to trust, the actor who measures success by everyone else’s perception, and so on. With all this award-bait story going on, it’s the addition of a Walter Mitty element of the fantastic that allows the main character’s imagination to be seen as reality or insanity…something that may be step too far for some moviegoers.
Here’s the slightly spoilerish specifics: Keaton’s character is on the verge of a complete breakdown – he keeps imagining that he has “superpowers” – but since this is just his imagination, it’s still part of reality – even if it’s only HIS reality. Most of these elements are hinted at or handled subtly, but as the stress and strain of opening a broadway show begin to take a toll, Birdman manifests in full CGI force, poking fun at the standard over-the-time superhero films currently fueling the box office before scaling it a metaphor for freedom…or not. The very end of this film has definitely thrown some people off, but anyone with experience of working in both film and theater will get it.
Look at it like this: Keaton’s character at some time believed his own hype (hence Birdman talking in his head) but also finally realized he was full of crap. To make up for it, he tried to honor his inspiration to become an actor in the first place, and worse yet, no one will let him forget who he was and that they secretly resent him for trying to be anything more. Is he a good person? Not entirely, but he’s TRYING, and that what the movie is really about. It’s was well acted and beautifully shot, but anyone who isn’t active in either moviemaking or theater isn’t going to relate; these kind of warped individuals and insane personalities are all out, just not always piled up in the same place.
The argument can be made that this is all a bit meta; Keaton – who was once Batman to Jack Nicholson’s Joker – is on a similar journey of redemption…or perhaps it’s just one of those clever coincidences that blur the fourth wall. The man who was Beetlejuice may not have won an Oscar himself for this effort, but he certainly helped his the movie that may or may not be a simile for his career win Best Picture of the Year. But if you’d prefer to re-watch Tim Burton’s Batman than anything that wins an Academy Award, Birdman is NOT the movie you’re looking for.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)