Written by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris & Armando Bo
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Setting: New York City
Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a film actor well past his glory days. He once portrayed an iconic superhero. Now he’s trying to rejuvenate his career by writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a project that’s close to his heart.
An alcoholic who’s spent his life in pursuit of stardom, which cost him his marriage, he is awkwardly struggling to reconnect with his adult daughter Sam (Emma Stone). Although he is still in love with his wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), he is in a halfhearted romance with an actress (Andrea Riseborough).
While sitting in his shabby dressing room, Riggan wrestles with the voice in his head — his Birdman persona — who tells him he’s above all this. He is still destined for great things. This establishes one of the themes strewn liberally throughout the movie, the duality of an actor or artist. The man onstage versus the man himself. Which one is real?
Unfortunately Riggan is badly in need of a good actor. Enter Mike (Edward Norton), a phenomenally narcissistic, volatile prima donna. Mike is a talented Broadway actor. He’s got the stuff, if only they can keep him sober and persuade him to stick to the script instead of going off on tangential rants. He provides comic relief and, like Shakespeare’s fool, he overtly reveals many of the movie’s themes. Take, for example, his rant about how we live behind our cellphones and never truly experience life.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard, with the exception of one fade out, this movie is filmed to make it look as if was shot in one take. Instead of jumping from one scene to the next, we follow characters down long, dingy hallways swathed in varying shades of artificial light. This, along with several rooftop scenes that look like sets, adds to the sense of superficiality and unreality. Is anything in these people’s lives real? What are we, essentially, outside of how the media portrays us?
The “real life” interactions behind the scenes are emotional and dramatic, and — at the same time — somewhat hollow. In one scene, despite the watery blue, somewhat magical looking set, the line between the play and “real life” becomes especially blurred. It is only near the end as we are, ironically, delving into the most surreal parts of the movie, that we see wholly real city streets and natural light.
One reason I love this film is that five of us could review it and we’d discuss five completely different things. What is happening in this movie? What’s up with Riggan’s fractured personality? Why does he hear Birdman’s voice? Does he really hear his alter ego? Is he psycho-doodle? Is this a metaphor? What about Riggan’s apparent telekinetic abilities? Is this real? Is it a figment of his tortured imagination? A blatant sign of psychosis? Is it a metaphor for the way movies play with reality, moving things around through prestidigitation and special effects? Does it matter?
Ultimately, like so many stories, this is a film about making meaning of our lives and struggling to figure out what is truly important and how to live an authentic existence. This interpretation isn’t much of a stretch, since the filmmaker tips his hand with the Raymond Carver quote at the beginning of the movie.
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
As we approach the end, and the movie becomes both more bizarre and more real, the layers unravel around Riggan. Throughout the film, we’ve seen Riggan — as Sylvia explicitly says — craving recognition and appreciation above all else. But in the end what he really desires is genuine love. Isn’t that we all want?