Birdman is essentially two movies. The more interesting of them is watching a Broadway production come together from the perspective of a man whose life and sanity are falling apart. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a former movie star–beloved for, and shackled to in the public consciousness, a superhero franchise–trying to energize his career by writing/directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan’s troubles are well underway when the film begins: a daughter just out of rehab (Emma Stone) who is distant when not trading barbs with the old man, a notoriously difficult method actor (Edward Norton) undercuts him at every turn, and the superhero Riggan portrayed so long ago is following him around, talking to him in a voice only he hears. Also, the actor may or may not have telekinesis.
How much of this is in Riggan’s mind is left up to interpretation. Alejandro González Iñárritu deploys Birdman‘s central gimmick–the appearance of having been shot in one take–to suggest reality, while at the same time denying it with special effects tricks (Riggan is introduced levitating in his underwear). The camera tracks the film’s self-destructive personalities on stage, backstage, and outside the theatre, floating in close for intimate heart-to-hearts. Keaton looks acid-fried as he Aaron Sorkin talks his way around problems as they arise. He never seems entirely there, either, often staring at something away from the people he’s talking to–in one instance looking up at a stage light during rehearsal with an actor he finds terrible, just before it crashes down on the man. Iñárritu toys with the idea Riggan’s pursuit is a need to be seen and accepted as an actor. On stage he goes into asides, speaking directly to the theatregoers, spotlight and camera both affixed. He could, in fact, be suffering from dissociation, “watching” events from outside his own body as a way of coping with the world’s indifference.
This brings us to the other side of the Birdman equation. Behind every conversation and interaction is a debate about art and legitimacy. Norton calls Riggan a hack, perpetuating “cultural genocide,” while a critic nurses her own vendetta against Thomson and his play. Iñárritu positions his film as a counter to the loud/stupid Hollywood machine, Riggan needing to shed childish fantasy from his performance in order to win the respect he craves (it’s suggested he use a real gun for the play’s climactic scene rather than an obvious prop). Ironically, these portions of the film are the most dishonest, showing the director’s hand as he sculpts a message about artistic expression trumping all. The critic, a one-dimensional snob who wishes to tank Riggan’s play with a scathing review (before she’s even seen it), plays exactly like the kind of easily-hurtled villainy preferred by the very Hollywood machine being criticized (compare her to a similarly obsessed food critic in Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille, complete with a switch to a fawning review upon seeing how “genuine” the protagonist’s expression is).
Iñárritu seriously posits the critic’s word could very well end the play at one showing, snuffing Riggan’s career once and for all, despite previews selling out. This scenario draws upon an idea of criticism which hasn’t been true for decades, if it ever was at all. If previews and opening night already sell out, how would a single bad review hope to tank an already anticipated event featuring big name actors (it certainly doesn’t in real life)? This model of thinking extends further: when confronted, Riggan tears into the woman, saying she “risks nothing,” only “writes on paper,” a dangerous misstatement (to say nothing of misunderstanding criticism as a vocation) to make in the age of superhero fanboys’ harassing and threatening critics over Rotten Tomatoes scores. By this point, we’ve trade one idiotic narrative for another, more awards-approved version. Birdman‘s stumble in these larger, cultural issues overtakes the more human view of damaged celebrities, because Iñárritu links them inextricably. For all those ruffled feathers, he defers to the machine with a chuckle.