Film in review – “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

Birdman_posterThis is a great movie for theater lovers, and a pretty good one for everybody else.

Michael Keaton is superb in the main role. He plays Riggan, a once-famous costumed hero who has now kind of fallen on hard times. (I know, the premise was similar in “The Incredibles,” but this one is aimed at the adults, not the kids.) He’s thrown all his eggs into one basket: trying to put together a new Broadway play (or actually a re-adaption of an old one, which wasn’t quite a classic in the first place, and this production isn’t, either). It’s beset, at first, with a primary actor who just isn’t good enough. The problem is that he’s already been cast, and it’s too close to opening night to switch horses. Or is it? Riggan’s lead actress, the eager but inexperienced Lesley (Naomi Watts), suggests someone whom she is, ahem, really close to at the moment, Mike (Edward Norton). Mike is a veteran stage actor who’s recently been fired (or quit… or whatever) from the project he was working on and is suddenly available for this one; not only that, he’s already memorized the lines because he’s been helping Lesley get off book. (Some people actually have this talent to learn lines by repetitious overhearing. I once worked with a fellow pit orchestra member who could recite all the actors’ lines in the entire play, and she’d never seen the script.) Mike is talented, all right, but he’s a handful – full of himself, ready to challenge everyone else, particularly the director, about the way a scene is staged even though he just walked on to the project himself.

Ah, but this is theater and we are used to big egos. We are also accustomed to regular fits of histrionics, the strategic emotional flare-up, the purloined grabs for body parts, the complete absence of modesty and the heady presence of great talent. Here we have the nervous stage manager, the clandestine rendezvous in the rafters, the temper tantrums in the dressing rooms, the cheap-looking props, the wardrobe malfunctions, the missed entrances, the hasty improvisations, the dropped cues, and oh, the upstaging. When Sam asks Mike how he can pretend to be someone else all the time, he replies that it’s when he’s onstage that he’s himself, it’s the rest of the time when he’s pretending to be someone else.

Zach Galifianakos, as Riggan’s best friend, manager, attorney and co-producer, acts like he belongs backstage, placating indignant customers, cajoling petulant actors and exaggerating audience interest. On opening night he’s as frantic as a sherpa running from an ice avalanche. Emma Stone, as Sam, Riggan’s daughter, shows us a sultry and caustic side that belies her big, curious eyes and her pretty, little turned-up nose. Her mother, Riggan’s ex, even shows up and casts a baleful stare at Riggan’s implied shenanigans with a bit actress young enough to be their daughter. But despite the appearances of holding it together, Riggan’s about to come unglued. Somehow the sharks in the water sense that, including the infamous critic and even the fickle fans who are always wanting a selfie with the Birdman who used to soar through the clouds.

Well, there are times when ol’ Birdman would just love to fly away, far above the madding crowds and the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the actors equity. And just like still being able to perform a few levitational tricks, if Birdman can imagine it, he can do it. It’s just that re-imagining yourself is always harder work than reverting to default mode. And all of us Presbyterians understand the lure of the comfortable and familiar – how tempting it is to revert to what we’ve always done, even when we know it no longer works – and how much of a shipwreck that can cause.


RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.