Critics and viewers have piled enormous amounts of praise on Birdman, 2014’s Best Picture winner. Those praises are all technically correct. But the film only works if in the end you are willing to embrace, in some degree, its existentialism – a step I’m not willing to take.
Michael Keaton is Riggan, a man who once headlined the massive comic book film series Birdman, but is now a washed up and irrelevant actor. In a last bid to revive his career, he is directing and starring in a play adaptation of a literary fiction novel, transitioning from blockbuster to arthouse. There are a few problems, though. They’re losing money, they can’t get a decent supporting actor, and Riggan is quite literally going insane.
His problems multiply when they hire Mike as the supporting actor, who is a celebrity in drama circles, but is also quite possibly the world’s most selfish jerk. He lectures Riggan on his writing, stands stark naked in the dressing room just because he can (with sensitive parts obscured), and tries to get his girlfriend, another actress in the play, to have actual sex with him on the stage for the sake of realism (she refuses and is livid). In short, he’s a narcissist, loose cannon, and diva all rolled up into one.
As things further deteriorate for Riggan’s highly-publicized play, his mental condition deteriorates. He hears the persona of Birdman talking to him, usually telling him how worthless the play is, and how the superhero films were the good life. He eventually starts showing up physically (in Riggan’s mind, at least), which is where things start to get weird.
As these fantasies become more extravagant, the line between what is real and what is in Riggan’s head becomes more and more blurred. Eventually, the audience is not entirely certain whether we’re actually meant to view these scenes as fantasy or reality. Ultimately that question isn’t really answered, probably, I’m inclined to think, because director Alejandro Inarritu doesn’t want it answered. It’s the question itself, not the answer, that deserves attention.
But this much is clear: the point at which Riggan’s ambition and dissatisfaction is finally quelled is the moment when he gives the Birdman persona permission to be in his head. This is a problem.
It’s a problem for a couple of reasons. First, the implications for mental illness are not pretty. It seems downright irresponsible to suggest that a person struggling with some form of schizophrenia ought to just give into it. But secondly, and more importantly in terms of the film’s messaging, it ultimately says that the path to true peace with yourself is not to approach reality in a certain way, but to create your own reality.
Yet there is something of a nugget of truth before the film gets to that point. Riggan’s daughter Sam, a recovering drug addict who’s something of a mess, has probably the most on point line in the film. She draws lines on toilet paper, a bunch of them, to represent how long the Earth has been around, then draws a much shorter series of lines showing long people have been on the Earth. Then she says that perspective really makes you think about how small our prideful ambitions are.
Right there is where the heart of this movie could have been. In Mike we can see what Riggan could turn out to be if his play is successful. He wants to ve relevant, but at what cost? Is it really worth it? But instead, that idea is relegated to a subtheme, while ideas about making your own reality and embracing mental illness come to the forefront.
It really is a shame that I can’t speak higher of this film. Inarritu’s direction is mesmerizing, particularly the long, uninterrupted takes. Michael Keaton and Edward Norton both bring performances that could be career bests for them. The writing and dialogue have a snappy rhythm which, when combined with the drums that frequently roll in the background, give it a driving momentum not unlike a New York subway. There are bright moments in the film as well, like reconciliation between Riggan and his daughter, and the former’s sincere regret at the kind of husband and father he was. But the ideas that form the core of this film are ultimately very misguided, and they certainly don’t justify the content issues that the film has.