To better appreciate this film, I recommend reading up a bit on short story writer Raymond Carver, and his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film plays out as sort of a movie within a play within a movie, linked with an abstract narrative about self discovery and self release. The reason I’d recommend knowing a bit more about the background of Carver and the story is to diminish distractions like trying to figure out how the play revolves around the story–it may make things less confusing.
The main story of the film is about a has-been actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who was once a big star because of a superhero movie called “Birdman”. Since that fame, he has faded into obscurity and a generation of parents whose kids have no idea who he is. His irrelevance bothers him, so he wants to try and do something else–but something with more substance. He wrangles up some stage actors and gets some money behind a production of one of his favorite writers, Raymond Carver, and adapts his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” into a Broadway play. None of the people involved have that much experience. His main actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), has never been on Broadway. His producer and friend (and lawyer) Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is doing his best to keep Thomson together emotionally, while the production has a bit of a problem since a light falls on one of the principal actors. The actor, whom no one thinks is very good, is replaced by a much more seasoned–albeit dangerous and unscrupulous–actor named Mike (Edward Norton). Mike can recite the lines before even knowing what they are, and has the ability to lose himself in the character while being on stage. His problem is that he is very unpredictable, and that he’s almost impossible to control. He starts to take a liking to Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who Riggan hardly knows due to all his years spent acting instead of being a father. Riggan and Sam share an understandable strained relationship, but it still seems amicable.
While Thomson tries to whip the show into shape during its preview run, he is tormented by the voice and sometimes appearance of his old character, Birdman. Birdman represents his “dark side”. Birdman believes that Riggan is denying himself the joy of being a superstar by trying to do something as small as theater. Thomson tries to get him out of his head, but he nearly tears his dressing room apart while battling the imaginary “devil on your shoulder”.
He desperately wants to be recognized. He knows that he does not have a good reputation in theater, and is afraid of a prominent critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), will eviscerate his efforts and make him look bad once the play opens. Without even seeing it, she tells him, she will write a bad review.
With every doubt in his mind, Birdman becomes more powerful and manifests himself more to Riggan. His ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) doesn’t believe in him, and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) simply seems like a replaceable understudy in Riggan’s life.
The film is shot to give the feel of watching a play. There are no cuts, only occasional fades that let us know that time is passing. Most of the film feels like it’s one ongoing shot. So in a way, Riggan is on stage throughout the entire movie. When he’s acting in his play, he can come undone just as easily as he can when he’s in his dressing room hearing voices.
The performances are very strong, with a spotlight on Michael Keaton, obviously. He is at his best in this film, utilizing his entire range from ominous to manic to brooding to bright. He is everything at once, and can fall apart at any moment. Norton is also exceptionally funny as the “foil” in much of the storyline, and Emma Stone is appealing as always, as well as Watts and the rest of the “actors”.
There are two titles for this film, and I kept both in tact for the review. “Birdman” seems obvious, but what about “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”? What’s that supposed to mean? Well, the meaning to that title comes within understanding the film itself. And that can be a few different things, culminating in the film’s mysterious and purposely puzzling final shot. But you are definitely watching more than one story when you watch this film. That’s why you’re talking about more than just love when you’re talking about love. The emotional states the film touches on, the play on people’s actions and reactions, mixed with some satire and black comedy, all make for a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking film.