Let’s end the debate that no one cares about anymore from 2014… Birdman: brilliant farce or pretentious mess? I’m gonna do my best to actually take a side and not just say “well, it’s a little bit of both. Okay, thanks for reading; sorry I didn’t even take a firm stance!” But the problem is, on my latest re-watch, I was really enthralled with the movie, but I also hesitate to say anything Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu makes is brilliant because he is such a pretentious piece of shit, who is outrageously impressed with himself. But I think here, he is making an honest attempt at satirizing people like himself (namely through Edward Norton’s character). And that’s why it’s hard for me to take a firm stance here because the movie itself is also a little divided. At times we’re meant to think Norton’s pretentious theater performer is a whiney little try-hard who thumbs his nose at everyone else but then at other times, it wants us to look at him and say, “well he is an artist, and the rest of these frauds aren’t.” That’s what makes this so difficult.
Even larger themes in the movie play both sides. Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is plagued by his inner voice, channeled through the Birdman character, throughout the film, urging him to give up on his aspirations for artsy bullshit and go back to making superhero movies. Most of the time the film wants us to root for Riggan to shrug that temptation off and continue on making theater but then at other times it asks us “is there really anything that wrong with liking a campy action movie?” Once again, hard to take a side on a movie that seems to be playing both sides at every turn.
Quick aside: It’s actually interesting to remember when this movie came out.
During the press tour for the movie, Iñárritu constantly spoke at length about his apathy and borderline disdain for space movies and comic book movies, saying that they were too vapid to be as influential on the culture as they were. He went as far as to say that the Bush administration was heavily influenced by superhero movies, seeing America as the hero and the Taliban as some kind of dastardly supervillain that needed to be demolished.
What’s crazy to me is that Birdman only came out in 2014… looking back at that time period, we were only beginning our societal superhero craze. The Nolan Batman movies were just barely in the rearview, the DC Universe had barely even launched and then subsequently crashed and burned, we only still had the original six Avengers… Age of Ultron hadn’t even come out yet, let alone the insanity of Infinity War & Endgame. There were no outrageously kooky characters like Ant Man, or Dr. Strange; the irreverence of Guardians of the Galaxy had only just been released. There were no R-Rated superhits like Deadpool or Logan that were even able to garner awards attention. Other than Robert Redford in The Winter Solider, we hadn’t yet seen actors with such regard as Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Angela Bassett play around within the Marvel universe. Just a few years after this movie’s release, Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, something that was previously unthinkable.
Superhero movies only got bigger, crazier and, above all, more powerful in the time since Birdman’s release. It would probably be hard for Iñárritu to fathom them being any more prominent than they were in 2014, and was likely predicting their downfall, so I can only imagine what he might say about them now.
So, let’s go through and decipher how much of this movie is brilliant and how much of it is pretentious bullshit.
The ensemble is great. Everyone knows that. These actors are all doing great work. Not much more can be said about that (well, probably a lot more can be said about that… like tons more). I do feel bad for Andrea Riseborough, who gets the short end of the stick here. Her character is poorly defined and doesn’t evolve much over the course of the film. While everyone else is a fully realized character, she is oddly ill-defined; all we really know about her is that she’s an actress who is kind of dating Riggan and it’s not going well. I hate to say the character could have been cut… but she really only seems to exist to round out the cast a little bit more.
The movie caught a lot of attention for being a seemingly brilliant, self-aware critique of Hollywood actors, specifically ones like Keaton, who struggled to find their creative identity after gaining fame from action movies, but that’s not so much what I’m drawn to. The real brilliance comes in the form of the aforementioned Birdman voice that takes the piss out of all the would-be pretention that Riggan attempts to embrace. That character-within-a-character is the single stroke of brilliance that keeps you smiling throughout. He is the reminder that no matter how proud you are of whatever seemingly important thing you accomplish, realistically, no one gives a shit. People just wanna see cool shit. They wanna see something cool and take a picture of it and show off to everyone else that they saw some cool shit; that’s it. No one cares that you finished your novel, won an award or got your PhD. People will politely applaud but at the end of the day, they don’t give a shit. It’s so seemingly simple and obvious but it’s brilliant.
The absolute standout scene comes at the climax when Riggan nearly lets Birdman take over completely and embraces his role in life as a movie star. He doesn’t need the approval of a bunch of theater douchebags, he towers above those people. It’s an incredible sequence and genuinely very funny.
I know the big takeaway from this movie was the Emma Stone monologue where she takes three minutes to spell out the entire point of the movie: at the end of the day, nobody matters and eventually no one remembers you. It’s nice to know that Iñárritu is willing to admit this about even himself but at the end of the day, this scene is about as on-the-nose as it gets.
There’s also Amy Ryan who plays Riggan’s ex-wife. She’s a great addition as always but she brings a much-needed non-showbusiness perspective to the movie. The whole thing is a little too deep in the weeds on all the showbusiness stuff. Showbiz people are exhausting. All they know how to do is talk about showbiz and how good they are at showbiz and what they’re doing next in showbiz and which important people they know in showbiz. Fuck off. But every now and then, in comes Amy Ryan to breathe some fresh air into the movie as just a normal fucking person who can gently tell Riggan that there’s a world out there and maybe, just maybe, his whole life doesn’t hinge on whether or not his stuffy Broadway play for a bunch of stuffy, rich, white Broadway attendees is a success. You can be supportive and encouraging but also keep someone’s feet on the ground.
So, what’s pretentious about this movie? Honestly, not all that much. A lot of the bells and whistles are pretty superfluous and seem to exist for no reason other than to flex some muscles that no one cares about. Which is actually quite interesting. If the Birdman character exists to let you know that no one cares about all the special little moves you have, why include them in a movie that aims call that kind of thing out?
Why make the movie seem like it’s all one seamless shot? That’s pretty pretentious with almost no tangible purpose? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock. Why give Riggan ambiguously defined mental powers that only he can see but never really come close defining what it’s supposed to mean other than some ill-defined mental breakdown? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock. Why make an eyeroll-inducingly ambiguous ending that exists for no reason other than to get your movie to spread via frustrating word-of-mouth? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock.
And that’s what I can’t stand about Iñárritu: here he is, taking the piss out of his own ego and asking you to laugh at people like himself, who hold their silly, meaningless accomplishments so dear, and yet… he can’t help but toss in a handful of needlessly pretentious flourishes in the movie. You were so close to perfection, why did you actively include the one thing you sought to kick in the nuts? None of it acts as a meaningful repudiation of the movie’s other themes, it’s all just… there… because he couldn’t help it. And that’s why I hesitate to ever call him brilliant but damn if this movie isn’t the closest thing he’s made to perfection.
Birdman is so close to being one of the standout movies of the 2010’s and it probably belongs in that conversation but while its close relationship to pretention is what makes it so special, it can’t help but taste a little bit of the same Kool Aid that its characters drank.
So… let’s go take a side.
Pretentious Bullshit: 15%
Birdman is a brilliant satire of ego, the arts and the people that work within it but ultimately, it does come from someone very egotistical who works deep in the arts so it can’t help but blindly become the very thing it aims to mock.