Birdman or (The Critic-Proof Film)

I recently saw Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and I was surprised I didn’t like it (my review is here). The film currently has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and its appeal is obvious. It deflates superheroes at a time when our pop culture is oversaturated with them. And it does so in a tightly-wound meta package that juices star Michael Keaton for all he’s worth: his status as the original movie Batman now turned washed-up actor clawing back his relevance parallels his character’s status as the original movie Birdman now turned washed-up actor clawing back his relevance.

Birdman also insulates itself from criticism by exploiting our sympathy for Keaton, flattering the audience intellectually, and purporting to offer universal truths.

Micheal Keaton in Birdman

The film badly wants us to understand that its protagonist, Riggan Thomson, is Michael Keaton, albeit an unhinged, desperate version of the actor. An early scene sees Keaton – uh, I mean Thomson – doing press for the prestigious new Broadway production he’s directing and starring in. The interviewers alternately quote Roland Barthes, interrogate Thomson about facelifts, and become excited at the mention of Batman – uh, I mean Birdman. The scene is a caricature of how Keaton might be treated in interviews. One interviewer asks the ugly question, “Are you at all afraid that people will say you’re doing this play to battle the impression that you’re a washed-up comic strip character?”

The effect of all this Keaton = Thomson business is that the audience's pre-existing sympathy for Keaton is immediately drawn upon to create sympathy for Thomson. It doesn’t even matter that Thomson is a maniac or that his production – which is extensively showcased, for whatever reason – looks stiff and sophomoric. People want Keaton’s comeback to succeed. For that to happen, the audience also has to find some value in Thomson’s comeback, the substance of Birdman. Which is pretty easy to do. After all, Thomson is basically Keaton, and we all went into this movie rooting for Keaton, right?

The worst exploitation of the audience's sympathy comes when a cartoonishly sinister theatre critic promises to skewer Thomson’s play sight unseen because she resents the whole notion of a movie star on Broadway. This character's inclusion is a preemptive strike against anyone who would dare criticize the underdog Keaton or his ambitious new film. According to Birdman, artists are brave champions of truth and critics are acid-spitting villains. And you’re not a villain, are you?

The problem is that Thomson’s Broadway production – rightly shot down throughout the film as a pretentious vanity project – is successful due only to its surprise gimmick of Thomson shooting himself in the head, onstage, with a live gun. The film's equation of itself with this production is not really flattering. Birdman also gets by on gimmicks, particularly the faux-single-take (not revealed in trailers and mostly kept under wraps until the film's debut in Venice). Strip away the movie’s ouroboros-like construction and its technical prowess and you’re left with a standard melodrama full of subplots that go nowhere.

Even if Birdman is purposely terrible, as might be suggested, it’s easy for viewers to claim that was the point, it’s a meta black comedy! Yeah, sure – a black comedy that repeatedly draws on two jokes: a) a person throws a tantrum or gets in a fight and then someone walks in on them, and b) the word “balls.” No matter. If you go into Birdman wanting it to succeed, you can find a way to argue that it has. It’s a critic-proof film.

Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

One detail doesn’t fit into the grand meta scheme: Thomson directs the Broadway production, but Keaton certainly didn’t direct Birdman. So who did? The film's scheme quietly but firmly denies the existence of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Among all the meta messiness and the unedited, seemingly authentic performances, there is no room for the film to admit its own subjectivity. Instead, Birdman is desperate to be seen as a piece of living, breathing art that risks body and soul to expose universal truths – just like the way Thomson views his own Broadway production.

And it’s obnoxious as hell.

Iñárritu begs you to be on his side as he demolishes ad nauseam the evil strawmen of Hollywood, critics, and social media, all while pretending his viewpoints are the unspoken stuff we all know to be true. It's easy to agree with the basic arguments – but it's a little too easy, and the arguments are never more than basic. I just don’t harbour the same endless angst over those supposed evils that Birdman does. I’m also not so invested in Keaton’s comeback that I’m blind to the film’s myriad tricks, which include constantly patting the audience on the back for having the taste to choose Birdman over Batman.

The audience and critics end up adoring Thomson’s play because of its live gun gimmick, and they are undoubtedly fools. I wonder what that makes us for hoisting Birdman onto the Oscar-contender pedestal. Suckers for a good (or in Thomson's case, bad) comeback story? Suckers for intellectual flattery? Or participants in a piece of purposely terrible performance art? I’m not sure, but the film’s bitter, manipulative spirit doesn’t inspire any love in me.

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