Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Birdman.”
The Movie: “Birdman”
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A washed-up superhero actor attempts to revive his fading career by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway production.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 91 percent
Brown: Sometimes, we need a little sophistication on the JOE-DOWN.
This week, we have the long shot-heavy struggle of a man looking to be seen as legitimate by going to Broadway in “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
… We’re just gonna say “Birdman.”
My first thought: A Broadway-centric movie could be worse. Hell, we did that three weeks ago.
Second thought: I love Birdman! He’s my favorite lawyer!
While I was sad that it wasn’t that Birdman, this has been one of those classic JOE-DOWN examples where I’ve wanted to see a movie for years but never felt motivated enough to put it in. Hell, I have the DVD of this and this was the week I finally took it out of the plastic wrap!
So while I fight the urge to punch Edward Norton in the face at every turn, give us your first thoughts, Froemming.
Froemming: This was the weirdest MCU movie I have seen since “Dr. Strange.” Or is it DC? This has Michael Keaton, who has been both Batman and Spider-Man’s nemesis The Vulture. Here, he is basically those two mashed up with an actor going through an existential crisis.
This was a nice change of pace here. This is the type of art house goon movie I would watch in my spare time outside the JOE-DOWN, though like Brown, I never got around to it. I do enjoy the fact “It’s Always Sunny” did an episode in tribute to this with “Charlie Work.”
Brown, as I fight with my inner turmoil of career choices via 1989 Batman’s voice in my head, why don’t you kick this off.
The first thing I have to mention: The title of this movie. Putting parentheses on any title — for movies and/or songs — is the douchiest thing ever. It’s the Jared Leto of titles. Just like how honeydew is the Jared Leto of fruits.
So the opening shot of the movie is Riggan Thompson (Keaton) meditating while floating in the air in his Fruit of the Looms. … Can’t say I needed that in my life.
Froemming: I blame “Breaking Bad” for the popularity of middle-aged men being shown in their tighty whiteys in popular culture.
So, right off the bat we know this movie will have surreal moments in it, as Riggan is floating like he is Dr. Manhattan (who also is known for roaming through life in underwear) from “Watchmen.” We get some inner dialogue that is interrupted by a Skype call from his daughter, Sam, who he sent out to buy flowers. And if movies and shows about show business has taught me anything, it is that being an assistant is a lousy (REDACTED) job.
Brown: Yeah, it’s a shitty job, but at least Sam (played by Emma Stone) doesn’t put up with her dad’s crap. Although she mentions that the flowers she’s around smell like kimchi, which makes me worried about the florists in New York. When have flowers ever smelt like fermented cabbage?
We also find out that Riggan’s inner monologue is his old movie/comic book character, Birdman, which is a clear nod to Batman (right down to the 1989 “Batman” font on the movie poster in his dressing room). But the inner monologue voice is done in the same vein as Christian Bale’s Batman voice, which was all sorts of hilarious.
But we’re not here to make a superhero movie. Instead, we’re here to see Riggan’s take on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in a small Broadway theater.
Froemming: We get more surrealism as the transition scenes all sort of melt into one another seamlessly, even though the next scene can be taking place days later. Which is a trippy thing about this movie I really enjoyed. It kept the pace pretty quick.
Brown: And there’s more mind powers when, during a runthrough, a dissatisfied Riggan uses telekinesis to send a stage light down onto the head of a lackluster costar.
Quick question: Can we use JOE-DOWN lore and say that Riggan Thompson is Carrie White’s dad?
Froemming: Riggan does not seem like the kind of guy who would hang around Maine.
This scene raises the question that I wondered throughout the movie: Are his powers real or just in his head? I say in his head, as there is evidence of this later on with an irate cab driver.
Brown: This movie ultimately leaves questions open-ended and lets the viewer decide what’s going on. It’s a case-by-case study for me whether I like that trope. In the case of “Birdman,” I’m OK with it.
WIth an actor down (and bleeding from the ears), that raises the concern of Riggan’s best friend/lawyer Phil Ken Sebben.
Wait, sorry. Got my birdmen mixed up again.
It’s actually Jake, played by Zach Galifianakis, which had to do a double-take when I realized it was him since he wasn’t drugged out and wearing a howling wolf shirt like in “The Hangover.” Anyways, Jake is freaking out over A. a potential lawsuit, and B. trying to fill the vacant role since the production is flat broke.
Froemming: The most fantastical element of this movie is the fear of finding a replacement actor for a play in New York’s theater district.
Low and behold, Lesley (played by Naomi Watts), who is in the play, her boyfriend is available. Mike Shiner is a big name in the theater world who, we find out, is a difficult prick to work with. Given this is played by Ed Norton, I am not sure if this is a meta commentary on his long and colorful history of being a difficult prick to work with, or just a coincidence.
Anyway, Mike shows up and it seems like a good fit. He also has notes on Riggan’s script, which writers sure love hearing from actors!
Brown: I did write in my notes later on “Is Edward Norton acting? He’s ragging on mass appeal movies and yet he was the Hulk once.” And that was before you told me about why Marvel booted Norton from reprising that role in the Avengers movies. I figured it was a cost thing, which makes no sense since Marvel movies make more money than some countries in the world.
Another one of the actresses in this play, Laura, is Riggan’s main squeeze and tells him that she’s late with her period. Laura is played by Andrea Riseborough, who went on to be Nic Cage’s titular main squeeze in “Mandy.” Frankly, I just wanted to bring this up so I’d have an excuse to link King Crimson into a review.
Froemming: Who is more self-possessed: Mike or Jeremiah Sand?
Brown: I mean, at least Mike never outwardly called himself a profit? But it’s close.
So Mike is on board and the first preview with him is going really well… until Mike realized that Riggan replaced his gin on stage with water. So he throws a shit-fit over that.
… And then he tries to rape Lesley during a sex scene because *checks notes* that’s what an artist would do?
Also, as the scene progresses, Mike is erect as the play comes to its conclusion. I will say this: Ed Norton getting punched by Michael Keaton while sporting a thunderous erection is exactly what I needed in my life.
Froemming: Even though it is his play, he can’t fire Mike because the guy puts butts in the seats. And the vicious cycle of encouraging toxic people continues.
Then we meet Sam’s mother and Riggan’s ex,
Holly Flax Sylvia, who is there to discuss their daughter, who is out of rehab and working for her dad. All I really recall from this is she gets mad because he is going to refinance the house for this play, which they were going to give to Sam? I dunno, their daughter is like most 20-somethings: A fuckup. Maybe giving her a house now is a bad idea.
Brown: After the bad first preview, Riggan and Sam talk, only for there to be a fight after he finds a joint in Sam’s room. She goes on to tell Riggan that he’s irrelevant and this play isn’t an effort to show Riggan’s acting ability as it is a vanity project.
Froemming: I mean, isn’t any artistic endeavor basically a vanity project?
Brown: You’re not wrong. If anything, I view this movie, and Riggan’s struggles with the concept, in the same way musicians had to do acoustic shows in the ‘90s. Like, you weren’t a real artist unless you did MTV’s “Unplugged.” Like, why would KISS do “Unplugged” because that, and well, they LOVE money. It’s a bullshit standard. There’s nothing wrong with doing something popular instead of being more artistic.
A big worry in Riggan’s artistic dive into Broadway, aside from Mike’s holier-than-thou attitude is a looming New York Times review by critic Tabitha Dickinson. In a nutshell, if she gives Riggan’s play a negative review, the show is dead on arrival. And we find out later in the movie that she is hell-bent on giving it a bad review because she does not respect Riggan as an artist because he did the Birdman movies.
I’ll let the little kid from “Big Daddy” speak for me here.
Froemming: That is how I approach reviews for The JOE-DOWN: If you were in “Twilight” or “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” or worse — “Fuller House” — I will destroy your movie.
Brown: Through any of his struggles, Riggan’s Birdman persona tells him to just go back to Hollywood and do Birdman movies. You know, make people happy instead of filling this void in Riggan’s mind that he’s not a real artist.
Any time Birdman talked, I kept thinking in my head “Man, this is like ‘Venom’ if it were about a man’s struggle for respect — from inside and outside sources — instead of a studio cash grab.”
Before the second preview, we get some more drama. Mike turns down an offer for sex from Sam. Mike and Riggan get into what I can only describe as a hilarious slap fight that I imagine is slightly less pathetic than the time Froemming saw hippies fighting at a Phish concert that leaves Mike with a shiner.
Froemming: Yeah, nobody here cried.
And I do like Riggan is smacking Mike with the arts section of the New York Times for getting the cover and embarrassing the production with an interview. And he admits he just said what came to his head, like a brain-damaged chucklehead.
I also love the fact we see janitors just staring at this sad assault backstage of some dumb play.
Riggan has more internal arguments with Birdman, causing him to trash his dressing room like he is in Led Zeppelin or something, and when Jake comes in, Riggan basically says he wants to end the play. Which, I mean, he is hearing voices in his head and beat the marquee name with a newspaper, so maybe stopping this train before it goes further off the rails isn’t a bad idea.
Brown: Yeah… instead we watch the train start to derail, starting with Riggan getting stuck outside the theater after going out for a smoke break. His robe is caught in the locked door so he has to walk through Times Square in his underwear in order to go through the front door.
Here’s a recreation of this scene.
Eventually, Riggan does the scene through the crowd, using his hand as a gun… it’s making this drama into a comedy, like Charlie Kelly’s “The Nightman Cometh” or Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.”
Froemming: The whole being trapped outside in his underwear and having to walk through Times Square like that had the anxiety-inducing feeling of “Mother!“
But hey, being filmed in your underoos in downtown Manhattan gets you “trending” we learn from Sam. Which is one of those terms I despise along with “YouTube Star” and “Instagram Influencer.” Let’s just stop with this nonsense.
Brown: It’s the second saddest example of a stripped-down father going viral since David Hasselhoff was drunkenly eating burgers on the floor.
After this performance, Riggan goes to the bar where Tabitha tells him that she will tear the play a new ass.
Froemming: It was basically a classy version of this:
Brown: After that conversation, Riggan grabs a bottle of whiskey and passes out on the street.
That’s when this movie goes all meta in a way that Abed from “Community” would be proud of.
This… this is when the movie gets uber-surreal as Birdman becomes a real-life character and tells Riggan to forget all this and go back to the comfort of comic book movies.
At one point, Riggan is flying through the air like he’s Christopher Walken listening to Fatboy Slim.
Froemming, is this what drugs are like?
So, we have a moment when someone sees him on a ledge, then he flies off to the theater where they work, and he floats down and walks in. And is followed by an angry cabby who wants his fare. Meaning these powers and flying and whatnot are likely all in Riggan’s head.
And we are at the opening night of this play Riggan has put everything into. And things seem to be going pretty good for a change.
And then Sylvia comes backstage for another heart-to-heart with Riggan.
Brown: The heart-to-heart involves Riggan telling Sylvia about a suicide attempt where he tried to drown in the ocean, I’m imaging in a similar fashion to Virginia Woolf. He also mentions the Birdman voice in his head, which is pretty much dismissed immediately.
I think this is the point where Sylvia put Riggan behind her for good and decided to call that paper sales manager in Scranton and reignite that old flame.
Oh, and when Riggan goes back downstairs to the stage, he grabs a real, loaded gun instead of the prop gun that Mike chastised him for earlier.
Froemming: And the goofy son-of-a-bitch shoots himself in front of the audience, which gets a standing ovation and our critic runs off to write a glowing review. Because people are awful.
But! He didn’t go Cobain on them. He went more “elaborate Michael Jackson plastic surgery” in that he shot off his nose.
Brown: There are worse ways for one to lose their nose…
Froemming: Worse ways than that to lose a nose…
Brown: I do wonder if Riggan lost his ability to smell like Dewey Cox. When he gets it back, it should be a good time!
Anyways, Riggan is recovering at the hospital. Outside, he’s the talk of the town after Tabitha gives an overwhelmingly positive review of the play, mostly because he spilled blood on stage and honestly in that respect, Tabitha is no different than a pro wrestling fan. Even snooty critics aren’t above a base instinct like blood being an attention-getter.
Sam visits Riggan in the hospital and takes a pic of his “Invisible Man”-like bandaging to put on Riggin’s new Twitter page (that Sam started).
While Sam goes to find a vase, Riggan sees Birdman dropping a grumpy in the toilet and says goodbye to his alter-ego. Then he steps out onto the window ledge. We’re led to think he just killed himself as Sam panickes at the open window and hears police sirens down below. However, the movie ends with Sam looking up to the sky with a smile creeping over her face.
Froemming: Probably the drugs.
Brown: I imagine Riggan jumped, thinking he would survive like The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in “The Other Guys.”
Froemming, let’s go to reviews before we beat Ed Norton over the head with the arts section.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Brown: Yes. This is up there for the best movies we’ve watched on the JOE-DOWN.
Froemming: Yeah. This was a really interesting movie.
Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: