I watched a trailer for Birdman last June, and I thought it looked, well, interesting. But I didn’t figure I’d actually go see it in theater, mostly because it didn’t seem like my sister’s kind of movie, and also because I’m a lazy bastard who often has to be coaxed out of the house with the promise of treats. But a friend hit me up the other day and asked if I wanted to see it.
It’s, well. It’s interesting.
Riggan (Michael Keaton), an actor best known for playing a superhero twenty years ago, is trying to restart his career with a Broadway play that he’s adapting, directing, and starring in. Things go a little nutty.
1. For the most part, I enjoyed Birdman. I worried I wouldn’t for a couple of reasons: one, because the trailer for this movie had artsy WTF all over it, which sometimes totally works for me, but often feels lazy and pretentious; two, I’m obviously a huge fan of superhero films, and if this was going to be two solid hours of spitting at them, I knew I’d have to resist the urge to steal someone else’s popcorn and throw it at the screen. (I’d use my own, but I don’t actually like popcorn that much. I find it a frustrating snack.) It’s probably for the best that I hadn’t read Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s criticism of the genre before I watched his film. (Because while he has some points worth discussing, I entirely disagree that there should be an age limit to enjoying superheroes, and I take serious issue with how he ascribes the term ‘cultural genocide’ to the genre.)
But I did like Birdman. I found it entertaining, funny, and visually clever, and while it certainly gets in some digs at commercial flicks, it gets in just as many at more highbrow entertainment, like The Theater. As such, the movie felt more like a satirization of ego than anything else. I don’t know that I loved Birdman as much as most critics did — I’m still working through my feelings, honestly, and I did hit one or two snags that I’m not noticing in other people’s reviews — but I do feel like this movie has the potential to grow on me over time.
2. The cast is excellent. Some of the standouts:
This is some seriously on-the-nose casting. It’s also kind of perfect. Keaton does a terrific job with the role, at equal parts comic and tragic, and while I wouldn’t want to actually spend much time with Riggan in real life — because he’s basically a selfish ass — I could watch him on screen without my whole brain trying to explode. Like, I wanted to shake him around a lot, sure, but I could still laugh and occasionally even sympathize with him. That was nice.
Emma Stone plays Riggan’s daughter, Sam. Sam has the potential to be incredibly bratty and annoying, but surprisingly, I like her well enough, a fact that I attribute entirely to Stone’s performance. (Admittedly, I kind of love Emma Stone in general. But I think she’s good here.) I particularly like the moments where Sam and Riggan seem to somewhat connect.
I like Jake a lot too. He’s the producer of this play, and he’s consistently hilarious, but this particular brand of comedy feels just slightly different than what I’m used to seeing Galifianakis do. This isn’t a complaint at all; I think he’s great here. I was basically happy whenever he was on screen, watching everything fall to pieces around him, particularly his director.
Norton’s getting a ton of praise for this film, and it’s well deserved — he’s great at playing a gifted actor who’s extremely difficult to work with (for a wide variety of reasons). Lots of people have talked about the comparisons between Norton and his own character, but I’ve been a little surprised that no one’s talked about how awful Norton’s character kind of is. Not that Mike is totally without redeeming moments, but . . . there aren’t very many of them. It doesn’t make him unwatchable, surprisingly. This movie does a pretty good job making sure its unlikable characters are entertaining, but I’m still a little bothered by the fact that I haven’t seen any review or commentary make mention of one scene in particular.
Watts gives a very solid, understated performance, and I enjoy watching her a lot. My biggest regret is that she doesn’t have more to do; after the first half of the movie, it’s almost like the story forgets about her, and not just her, actually, but about half of the main cast, even people who I figured would be more important to the film’s climax. It’s kind of a problem for me. Not like a death blow to the movie or anything, but I noticed the imbalance while watching and it continued to bug me long after the movie ended.
3. Another possible small problem for me: I’m not sure how I felt about the evil theater critic. It wasn’t an acting problem — Lindsay Duncan was wonderfully sharp here — and I understand her function in the story (chief antagonist, mounting pressure, etc), but there’s something about her speech to Riggan that didn’t quite sit right with me, that felt almost . . . cartoonish? Cartoonish is the word I’m coming up with, but I’m not sure it’s the word I’m looking for. I find her problematic, yet I can’t quite put my finger on what’s bothering me.
4. I do like how the film looks, though. People have been praising the cinematography for good reason: it’s excellent. And I really enjoy how the movie has been edited to look like it was filmed in one continuous take. That could have come off awfully gimmicky, but I think it worked for me in that everything just seemed to be kind of spiraling downward without ever pausing for a scene break. It seemed like an interesting reflection of Riggan’s state of mind. It also allowed for some of the more WTF moments (like the sudden pan to the musicians, for example) to really shine.
5. Finally, before Spoilers, I’m glad that this movie didn’t go with the ending I predicted about a half hour in. The actual ending of the movie is somewhat up for debate, but surprisingly, I’m okay with that. If it had ended the way I thought it was going to end? I’d have knocked it down to at least a B-, easy.
Instead, I think it’s more interesting than that.
I’m not going to spend too much time here, but I want to first address the Edward Norton scene I mentioned earlier, and also the ambiguous ending.
So, most of the reviews I’ve read have mostly described Mike as a difficult performer to work with, and that’s true. What they’re leaving out is that Mike is also an attempted rapist. See, on one of the many disastrous preview nights, Mike and his girlfriend, Lesley (Watts), are under the sheets on stage, pretending to have sex. Only Mike, who can basically do anything or be anyone on stage — and is also having trouble getting it up in real life — asks Lesley if she wants to do it for real. Lesley is aghast, as you might be, but he holds her down and tries to have sex with her anyway despite her repeated refusals. Keaton comes onto the stage in character, which ends the moment (although not Mike’s boner), and Mike and Lesley come out from under the sheets and finish the play. Still. He totally attempted to rape her with hundreds of people in the same room.
Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this scene being in the movie. Lesley’s reaction seems genuine. Mike suffers no particular consequences for what he did — which, frustrating, but clearly not unrealistic, and at least Lesley does break up with that ass. That’s nice. The main reason I’m bringing it up is that the general non-reaction I’ve seen online makes me wonder if people don’t consider it to be that big of a deal or even an attempted rape scene, like actors will be actors, right, and hey, at least he wasn’t breaking character to have another drunken monologue on stage, you know? I find this troubling.
Now, let me skip to the ending:
Riggan ends up shooting himself in the head on stage with a real gun. Intentionally, I should clarify, although it’s not specifically stated whether he was actually trying to kill himself or not. (Although I would say that he was.) This is pretty obviously telegraphed earlier when Mike complains about the fake looking prop gun, so I was incredibly relieved when the film didn’t end here. And not just because I predicted it twenty minutes in, either, but because it seemed like a fairly uninspired and unoriginal ending. There’s nothing new there, and this movie clearly wants to be something new.
Instead, Riggan wakes up in the hospital with a different nose after he managed to shoot off his old one. His survival was actually foreshadowed earlier too, in the very dialogue of the play they’re performing. I though this was much more clever, and I only remembered it right before the hospital scene.
The evil theater critic ultimately gave the play a great review, talking about how the actual gunshot with the actual blood made it, like, post-post-modern or some bullshit like that. Meanwhile, Riggan’s hallucination of Birdman — oh, yeah, that’s a huge part of the movie, sorry — hasn’t gone anywhere, and Riggan goes to the hospital window. (Which just slides right open, despite the fact that hospital windows generally don’t do this, particularly not a gazillion stories up, and especially not when the patient inside SHOT HIMSELF IN THE FACE, like, oh my god, why isn’t there a sitter in the room with him? This guy isn’t on suicide watch? Forget everything else — this is the most unrealistic part of the whole movie.)
Sam comes back into the room to find it empty. She runs to the window, horrified, but it doesn’t seem like she sees anything when she looks down. But when she looks up, she breaks into a big smile. (Well, for her.) And that’s how the movie ends.
I’ve seen a few different interpretations of this ending. The most literal is that Sam is actually looking at Riggan flying in the sky, which, being the deeply literal person that I am, is how I initially took it. I’ve read another interpretation where Riggan did fall to his death, and Sam, having lost her mind after seeing his body, begins having her very own Birdman hallucinations. This is my least favorite for a few reasons — one, a fakeout suicide that leads to an actual suicide is just dumb, two, I don’t buy that Sam would so completely lose her mind at the sight of her dad’s body (not that a person couldn’t, but I don’t buy that Sam would), and three, even if she did, I don’t see any basis for her to have skyward hallucinations. If the director ever came out said that this was his intended ending, I’d either have to say, “Fuck canon,” and disavow it entirely, or knock the whole movie down at least a letter grade. Because I hate that ending so much.
I also read an interpretation for a less literal ending, where Sam’s not directly looking at Flying Riggan or Hallucination Riggan but instead is just supposed to be seeing him for who he actually is, or something. That’s okay, I guess. There are probably other interpretations, I’m sure. If you’ve watched the movie, what did you think?
Sometimes, ambiguous endings annoying the shit out of me because they don’t actually feel like endings. I don’t mind the idea of an open ending, but you have to feel like the story is complete, even if we don’t know what happens next. If you just feel like the the director called wrap before bothering to film the last page, well, that’s not an ending. But this one worked well enough for me, even if I haven’t fully made up my mind on what it all meant yet.
Lesley: “Why don’t I have more self respect?”
Laura: “You’re an actress.”
Sam: “You really think you’ll be ready for opening tomorrow?”
Riggan: “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, well, I mean, previews are pretty much a trainwreck. We can’t seem to get through a performance without a raging fire or a raging hard-on. I’m broke, I’m not sleeping like, you know, at all, and um, this play is kind of starting to feel like a major deformed version of myself that just keeps following me around, like, hitting me in the balls with like a tiny little hammer.”
Jake: “How do you know Mike Shiner?”
Lesley: “We share a vagina.”
Mike: “You wrote this adaptation?”
Riggan: “I did, yes.”
Mike: “And you’re directing and starring in your adaptation? That’s ambitious.”
I’m still making up my mind on this one. Overall, I found it interesting and funny enough that I liked it, even though I’m not quite ready to say exactly how much I liked it or what I took from the ending.
Er. Some critics will only be satisfied if you try to kill yourself on stage? Like, literally.