A Willy Loman for the internet era: Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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As a theater person who loves superheroes, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was the perfect cinematic storm for me: a film about an actor who walked away from a superhero franchise at the peak of his box office powers in order to rediscover his pretentious inner-theater muse … quite an intoxicating brew for yours truly.

Michael Keaton, whom I admit was most appealing to me back in his Mr. Mom days, plays the title character, an actor named Riggan Thomson. The film tracks the Quixotic enterprise to mount his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story … starring himself … and directed by … himself. If that conceit weren’t so believable in this egocentric day and age, it would be absurd. Keaton does his manic best, aided and abetted by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and his woozy one-continuous-take cinematic approach, to convince us that he is a failed superstar on the verge of a nervous break down.

After a clunky, self-aggrandizing first act, where all the players seem to be channeling Robert Altman-esque self-indulgence, the film kicks in and the enterprise becomes dizzyingly entertaining. Keaton is surrounded by a cast of superstars from Emma Stone playing his rehab-quirk-addled daughter to Zach Galifianakis as his neurotic consigliore to Edward Norton who steals the show as his Brando-ized Method (!) Acting co-star.

Once Norton enters the scene, the film finds its groove. (Norton can do no wrong in my book). Norton (both in character and in real-life) gives Keaton a similarly monumental ego against which to clash, and their scenes together are dynamite. The two actors create sparks as they literally beat each other to bloody pulps in their rehearsals for what appears to be one of the most turgid dramas that could ever grace the Great White Way. Norton is the saving grace (and secret weapon) of this film.

Birdman goes a long way to skewer our superhero-obsessed culture, casting many veterans of the genre, including Keaton (Batman), Norton (The Incredible Hulk), and Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man). They knowingly wink at the camera, actors who long for real parts to play but who have been forced to play spandex-clad clowns (or their paramours) to pay the mortgage.

I will add, though, that, like some lesser Oscar-bait films, the metaphors are laid on a little thick. This film is no Being John Malkovich, with its thrilling heights of meta-lunacy. Riggan literally (there’s that word again) cuts off his nose to spite his face by the movie’s conclusion. You don’t get much more obvious than that … unless Riggan had actually bitten that hand (audience member’s? producer’s?) that feeds. If the movie had been any longer, I bet he would have.

What the film gets so, so very right is the petty, competitive, ugly world of theater, rife with people who claim to be part of a larger artistic community but who can’t wait to plunge the proverbial ice pick in the back of a scenery-chewing costar. And, there is a wonderful moment in the film where Keaton says everything every actor has ever wanted to say to a theater critic. He eviscerates a New York Times pundit over drinks in a speakeasy; she, the gate keeper of all Broadway success, is excoriated by Riggan for what he sees as her lack of actual artistic credibility, channeled as it is into destroying the hopes and dreams of those treading the boards. It is a highlight of the film, which spectacularly identifies the Faustian pact that performers make with the media to promote and support their unyielding insecurities.

As an aside, this film made me think about what kind of creative person I am, both as an actor and a critic. I have acquaintances who are what one might call more “artistic” than I … or perhaps more “affected” if one is being cruel. In this blog, I don’t write about camera angles or nuance or sociopolitical constructs … at least not much. I write about my visceral response as a regular person wandering from multiplex to multiplex. I don’t know if that makes me a good critic or bad critic … a good witch or a bad witch. And I don’t really care.

That’s the joy of social media and blogging. People in the Fourth Estate might resent that there are folks out there like yours truly writing our thoughts for all the world to see. Well, get over it.

This film nails how creative people tear each other down for a lack of external validation. We are extremely, unnecessarily competitive. Sometimes we’re overtly harsh to each other in our commentary, and sometimes our absence of comment is even more so. I will never understand that. I remember vividly a dinner conversation after a local performance of Legally Blonde the Musical. (Yeah, I was in that show.) My cast-mates let me know how some other community theater types had seen the production and had identified at length all the things they thought we were doing incorrectly. WTF?!?  It was Legally Blonde the Musical.  It’s a cruise ship show.  A cartoon. This ain’t Hamlet, kids. Why anyone who is in community theater (myself included) would knock someone else’s community theatre show is beyond me. But I digress.

Back to Birdman. While I applaud Iñárritu’s efforts to create a Rube Goldberg cinematic style that sweeps us seamlessly from one scene to the other – in what appears to be a two hour continuous take – at times, it was a bit visually nauseating for me.  Or maybe that’s his point: when anybody launches into the fool’s errand of performing live theater, it is an experience that creates headaches, stomachaches … visceral highs and lows.

I will admit that I didn’t love this movie. It felt more like a student exercise at times than a fully-realized film. But I often find myself on the outskirts of what critics hail as artistic entertainment. The movie goes to great lengths to lampoon those films that the masses adore; yet, it misses the fact that most of us go to movies for escapism not torture.

Regardless, I found myself compelled by Keaton’s performance, a Willy Loman for the internet era, who sells his soul for credibility yet only finds validation when he accidentally lands on YouTube.

I believe the writers stole a bit from Carol Channing’s life, If I recall, she tells a wonderful story of being locked in the alley during a performance of Hello, Dolly! having to come around to the front door and enter through the audience. Granted, she was in full costume and not dingy BVDs like Keaton’s Riggan Thomson. And maybe that’s most obvious and most appropriate metaphor of all. The emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Musical postscript …


Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

13 thoughts on “A Willy Loman for the internet era: Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  1. here comes the old English teacher…paragraph #5 BRIDMAN is needing a reversal of the “r” and the “i”? and there ends my criticism…for this is exceptional writing! and I do not know the meaning of “consigliore” nor “excoriated”? and my 10 year old dictionary ain’t got those two words included? so much for being an obnoxious English teacher cuz I am sans the proper cheating tools! and bravo for nailing the ‘green-eyed monster’ competition between and among those who consider themselves “artists”… one of the most ridiculous and painful facets of attempting anything even close to expressing one’s SELF… usually a bunch of fools who just talk a good game and bore the bejesus outta anyone caught in that web of hot air! (a mixed metaphor that!) CONGRATS ON A GREAT REVIEW ONCE AGAIN AND AS ALWAYS! I recognize talent and acknowledge it when it stares me in the face! but then I am a very fine human being! as are you, sir!

    • thank you so much for catching that! typing that silly name over and over was making me go blind – I’d leave out a “d” or invert letters over and over. and consigliore is an advisor, with a legal implication, typically for the mob, I think. and excoriate mean to rip apart (I think – I hope)! thanks for the kind words and for all the encouragement. love you!

      On Wed, Nov 12, 2014 at 2:04 AM, Reel Roy Reviews wrote:

      > murphysmission commented: “here comes the old English > teacher…paragraph #5 BRIDMAN is needing a reversal of the “r” and the > “i”? and there ends my criticism…for this is exceptional writing! and I > do not know the meaning of “consigliore” nor “excoriated”? and my 10 year > old d”

  2. i have been wanting to see this, as i am ever-drawn (real phrase?), to character driven and ‘interesting’ films. you have written a fine and multi-layered review, with the eye of an insider, once again, and i have two thoughts:
    1) you should be on a payroll somewhere as an entertainment reviewer
    2) i want to see this film even more now that i’ve read your review.

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