Last time I wrote about Birdman here, I admitted that I was a bit confused by what message the movie wanted to send. I think I'm starting to get it, and the key to getting it is figuring out which characters to pay attention to, and which to avoid.
Just a heads up, this whole thing is a massive spoiler for everything.
Alright so the end of the movie sees Riggan shoot himself onstage at the end of his play. He ends up surviving though, with his nose blown off. When he comes to in the hospital, he has a great review by the New York Times, tons of followers on Twitter and Facebook, and the attention of the media once more. He finally earns the respect of his daughter, and his best friend is elated at what surely will be a financial windfall coming their way soon. As a final stroke, he takes flight out the window and his daughter can see it now, and she smiles up at him. When I describe it like this, it sounds like everything worked out in the end, right?
Again, the key here is deciding which character to pay attention to and which characters to avoid. Just because the movie makes something appear like a good thing doesn't actually mean it is, and just because a character is happy about something, doesn't mean we should be too. So, let's break this ending down:
First of all, the shooting. Everything leading up to this point led me to believe that he was motivated by depression and a desire to kill himself, not that he was intentionally trying to wound himself for the sake of the play. Unless I'm the only one that didn't notice it, there wasn't any indication that this was premeditated for the sake of the play being a success. I would also argue that he must have shot himself, like, in the head, and not trying to graze his nose or anything, since he falls down silent at the end of the play. If this is the case, then his success following his attempted suicide doesn't really count. By that, I mean Riggan himself doesn't succeed here, he actually fails by falling victim to suicidal thoughts, and fails again by not being able to follow through with them. He just accidentally becomes famous afterwards.
Then there's the review. Have you ever received a compliment from someone you thought was vile? It feels more like an insult than an insult. The theatre critic is, at best, a shallow person. At first, she derides Riggan just because he was a Hollywood actor, and declares that she will give a poor review no matter what the play is, just because she hates him. This is flagrantly unprofessional, to say the least. Perhaps most damning of all is her admiration for Edward Norton's character, who is an attention-seeking, narcissistic, lying asshole. Her good review in the newspaper is actually something to be embarrassed about.
The movie makes the case against the adoration of the media and the attention of millions. Throughout the entire film, we're told that the masses are quite dumb, enjoying dumb people things like explosions, superheroes and reality TV. (And, arguably, killing "real art" by drawing talented people away from genuinely-made projects.) Here again, when the masses start liking Riggan again, the movie has already made it clear that it is a mark of shame.
Was I the only one that noticed that Riggan's daughter is a terrible person? The movie flirts with the notion that we should feel bad for her, and that maybe she's just a confused kid. The problem with this is that she's not a kid; she's a full-grown woman. She's a drug addict, and a liar. Remember all those terrible things she said to her father, and afterwards later admitted that he really never did anything bad to her? She sleeps with Edward Norton's character, who again, may I remind you, is a crazy asshole. Her approval at the end is also not something to be happy about.
What about Riggan himself? Throughout the entire film, he's hounded by the Birdman character speaking directly to him, urging him to sell out and become famous, while at the same time stroking Riggan's ego with delusions of grandeur. This guy definitely shouldn't be listened to, and is promptly ignored at the end of the film while he's on the toilet. It seems like the Birdman persona is dead, but maybe not. By shooting himself in the face, failing at suicide, and becoming famous, Riggan needs a new nose, which of course strongly resembles a bird beak. I suppose you could read this as a cute little callback to Riggan's prior role. "Oh, he looks like a bird now. How cute." Instead, I choose to see this as Riggan full on becoming Birdman. Birdman is no longer a persona he has, or a mask he wears; Birdman is his face. He is Birdman.
Well, christ, Kevin. Are there any decent characters in this entire damn movie? Just one: The ex-wife. She is grounded throughout the entire film, never once displaying or even mentioned any of the crazy properties that the actors or the daughters portray. When she kisses Riggan, it is completely different from the way the crazy actress kisses Riggan in the beginning, declaring her pregnancy, slapping him, and then sucking his face. Despite being married to Riggan, she is far, far removed from the world of phonies and nutjobs that he inhabits. She seems to be kind, caring, and supportive of Riggan. She is the voice of reason, and it is her voice protesting at the end of the film. She is understandably worried about Riggan's mental and physical state, and shocked that his best friend is discussing fame and fortune while he still lies in his hospital bed. While all the other idiot characters are cheering Riggan's return, she, being the wisest of them all, knows that Riggan has only descended further into the muck of show business.
Here, I think we can start making assumptions about what the movie is "about". I still believe that it's all over the place with messages it wants to send, but at least one is clear: the entertainment industry is a bunch of shit. Get out and spend some time with your wife.