Will the Real "Birdman" Please Stand Up?

Why the best-reviewed movie of the year may not be so great after all.

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WARNING: If you haven't seen Birdman stop reading here. I'm about to tell you exactly what happens in the movie. I will spoil the ending. If you complain in the comments, I'm just going to refer back to this sentence. Okay? Okay. 

Everybody loves Birdman. I went into the theater preparing to be wowed by the incredible performances and gorgeous camerawork. The meta-narrative narrative already seemed perfect: Michael Keaton, playing a has-been actor (much like himself), makes a bid for redemption after years of being haunted by his recurring role as a superhero. Edward Norton, playing a method-acting egomaniac (much like himself), threatens to steal the spotlight. The idea that the movie was made as if it was a single unbroken take sounded spectacular. But when the credits rolled, amidst literal applause from the audience, I wondered if I had just seen a different film than everyone else in the theater. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was beautiful, but it's message is a mess. And how much you like it may say more about you than it does about director Alejandro González Iñárritu

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis called the film "a funny, frenetic, buoyant and rambunctiously showboating entertainment in which Mr. Iñárritu himself rises high and then higher still." Rolling Stone's rock star critic Peter Travers opened his review, gushing, "I'm jazzed by every tasty, daring, devastating, howlingly funny, how'd-they-do-that minute in Birdman." Grantland's Wesley Morris (whose writing I particularly admire) wound up comparing the film to Federico Fellini: "In a manner not dissimilar from the way Darren Aronofsky made Black Swan a critique of artistic perfection, Iñárritu is taking Fellini’s full-figured personal comedies and slimming them down to ask modern questions about the nature of culture." The New Yorker's Anthony Lane described "sequences spliced together so cunningly that we cannot see the joins." Lane's observation isn't strictly true (you can occasionally see the digital cuts), but we get it. The camera is like a bird, man. But what is Iñárritu actually trying to say? 

Maybe Iñárritu has it out for snobs, not summer blockbusters.

Let me start by saying that the movie is often laugh-out-loud funny—at least in the first two acts—and the performances, particularly Norton's electrifying performance as dick-with-a-big-dick Mike Shiner​, are fire. But as the story progresses, the movie enters darker territory. Keaton's character, Riggan Thomson, in his quest to be taken seriously as an actor, has decided to adapt Raymond Carver's classic short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” That story happens to include the suicide of his character, in a vastly-expanded version of the event. (In the short story, other characters merely talk about the event—Riggan enacts it on the stage.) We have the setup; Norton's character even remarks that the orange tip of a prop gun looks "too unrealistic." It's only a matter of time before things get real and Riggan (I told you there would be spoilers!) decides that a public suicide is the only way to prove his worth as a Real Artist™.

Japanese author Yukio Mishima (also a playwright, among many other things) actually committed harakiri, and it's been entwined with his mythology ever since. But Riggan is no Mishima, and, in the context of the film, the conceit plays as narcissistic, childish, and downright mean to the people who actually care about the guy. Riggan is such a slave to his own ego, his apparent transcendent calm in his final moments is just another version of delusion; he fails to truly hear out his ex-wife, now focused entirely on masterminding his own whiz-bang ending. When I write about this now, it feels that Iñárritu isn't actually so fond of his protagonist. But during the film, it's less clear what to make of the situation. Iñárritu is either celebrating a man's decision to end his life on his terms, or indicting the decisions of a delusional idiot. But which is it? 


New York's David Edelstein, in a mostly negative review, writes that "Iñárritu never bothers to tell us if his Carver adaptation deserves to succeed, if [Riggan's play] is good." Edelstein found that to be one of the film's great faults, and if it's to be seen as a sincere portrayal of an great artist, then it certainly would be. But it's more likely that this is one of the many tells that Birdman is a satire.

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir approaches this dichotomy between bloviated ego-trip and all-out farce in his review—one of the few that really tackles the messy nature of the film. He writes: "It is a work devoured by its own ambition, consumed by the very thing it vilifies. It’s obvious Oscar bait—a mid-budget showbiz satire, loaded with stars—that decries the Oscar process, in the words of Hunter’s critic character, as a bunch of vain and empty people giving each other awards for cartoons and pornography." 

From the beginning, the idea that someone would write, direct, act in, and produce a play adapting "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is absurd. (That the play has actors dressed as reindeer only bolsters this notion.) Maybe we, the audience, are not supposed to think that the play is good—maybe it's supposed to be obvious that it's a terrible miscalculation. And there are more giveaways that the joke is on Riggan. In one scene, Keaton's character—in the throes of a wild hallucination—berates the audience for enjoying action movies. On the one hand, Keaton/Riggan could be seen as a mouthpiece spitting truth to a public whose appetite for Marvel superheroes is limitless; but could Iñárritu, whose best friends are genre geeks and action-movie masters Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, really hate spectacle this much? After all, isn't the faux-contiguous camerawork just another version of the fireworks Riggan disdains? It seems that Iñárritu has it out for snobs, not summer blockbusters. 

The one scene that critics dislike most is also the most obvious suggestion that the film's target is myopic artists, not its audience or the action film industrial complex. Played with gleeful vitriol by Lindsay Duncan, theater critic Tabitha Dickinson tells Riggan that she's going to tear his film apart—no matter what. She says he's an interloper and a fake. She hates that he's from Hollywood. She only cares about "authentic" stage actors. Riggan is literally everything that is wrong with New York Theater! Of course, critics like this don't actually exist, at least not outside the minds of egomaniacal actors and directors—which is exactly where Tabitha is supposed to exist. If the film is a farce lampooning Riggan, then critics like Tabitha are the nightmarish bogeymen that haunt the dreams of entitled narcissists. Tabitha isn't a miscalculation on Iñárritu's part, she's a monster come to life. The film ends with Riggan's third (!) suicide attempt after miraculously surviving a bullet to the face. (His bandages ironically make him look like Birdman once again.) This time, he jumps from the window of his hospital room—a return to the flights of fancy from earlier in the film.

The last shot lingers on the face of Riggan's daughter, played by Emma Stone; she's looking out the window, smiling. Taken literally, this could be the moment when Riggan manifests his powers IRL, flying to freedom and self-actualization. But, honestly, the ending doesn't make much sense. The ambiguity feels weirdly forced—unless it's yet another opportunity to read the film as a satire. The last shot could be a final jab at the sort of high-minded, "pretentious" films beloved by critics, the "Oscar bait" O'Hehir was referring to. Just one more poke at the audience before the credits roll.

But even now, I'm having trouble convincing myself that Birdman is one long joke—at least not entirely. At times, Keaton's vitriol is just too pointed—too on-the-nose—to come off as satire. But if Iñárritu is trying to have it both ways, I'm not sure it quite works. In 8 ½, Fellini abandoned his original suicide ending for a world-embracing dance scene that overflows with the joy of simply existing in the world. Fellini brushed off death as a daydream. Even if we give Iñárritu the benefit of the doubt, it's a shame he didn't have the imagination to wake himself up. 

Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex who really wanted to like Birdman. Maybe he sort of does. He tweets here

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