For argument’s sake, let’s start from the basic premise that comic-book superhero movies are, in essence, dumb: the visual-entertainment equivalent of empty calories. They’re crowdpleasers that mint more money than the US government, true; you can’t argue with success. And given cleverly written dialogue and gifted actors like Robert Downey, Jr. or Mark Ruffalo to deliver it with just the right seasoning of world-weary irony, such a movie can be a guilty pleasure even for critics who are usually off reviewing more nutritious cinematic fare. But when you get right down to it, they’re still, by nature and usually by intent, kind of dumb.
Now that we’ve settled that, we’re primed to slide into the skewed world of a balding, paunchy former superhero movie star who yearns to make a comeback as a serious stage actor, as portrayed by Michael Keaton in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). From almost the first scene, in which we witness Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, apparently levitating in his dressing room while being alternatingly berated and wheedled by the disembodied voice of his erstwhile alter ego Birdman, the film offers viewers little to go on in terms of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
This should surprise no one who has ever seen a movie by González Iñárritu or either of the other “Three Amigos” of contemporary Mexican cinema, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. All manifest to some degree the Surrealist sensibility of their forefather, Luis Buñuel, as well as the magical-realism aesthetic so emblematic of Latin American literature of the past half-century. Impossible things happen in a most matter-of-fact manner, with no visual guideposts like misty filters or shimmery auras to tip us off that the camera has strayed from the realm of the mundane into the unreliable narrative of a character’s overactive imagination, biased perceptions or downright mental illness. Does Riggan really have superpowers of levitation, telekinesis, even flight? Or are these just his grandiosity knocking out his better judgment? We’re left to wander backstage and draw conclusions on our own, now and then passing an unexpectedly situated drummer as the percussion-heavy Antonio Sánchez soundtrack rattles in our heads.
Though it fits squarely into a storytelling tradition, Birdman is more meta than most of its ilk, because the matter with which it grapples is the very distinction (or muddling thereof) between fantasy and reality as practiced in the arts of stage and screen. An actor, it seems to tell us, straddles two worlds at all times, and the best actors sometimes have difficulty knowing in which one they truly dwell. And on another level, the film wantonly plunders centuries of myth about metamorphosis and flight, identity and integrity, serving up random slices as needed.
Even the advance buzz for this film was meta. In the runup to Birdman’s release, much was made of the fact that Keaton himself has had some difficulty reestablishing his career as more than a comic actor after playing the title role in Tim Burton’s two Batman movies in 1989 and 1992. The casting may have been more than coincidence; but Keaton’s performance is so visceral, so risky, so devoid of any taint of personal vanity that he completely validates the director’s choice of him to embody the role. It’s a lifetime highwater mark for the actor, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him in the running for an Oscar nod this year.
The down side to Birdman is that none of the supporting characters is quite so thoughtfully fleshed out as the lead, and one – a vicious New York Times theater critic gamely assayed by Lindsay Duncan – is so thin as to approach caricature. Most members of the talented cast give these underdeveloped roles their best shot nonetheless, notably Edward Norton and Naomi Watts as actors in Riggan’s star-crossed stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, Emma Stone as his embittered daughter and Amy Ryan as his still-supportive ex-wife. Even Zach Galifianakis manages to rise above his usual pottymouthed man/boy schtik to carry off a mostly serious portrayal of Riggan’s best friend and attorney.
Besides outstanding acting and puckish direction, Birdman’s chief attraction is Emmanuel Lubezki’s astonishing cinematography. Through the use of long tracking shots seamlessly grafted together via extremely skilled editing techniques, the illusion is created that we are walking with the actors down endless labyrinthine corridors in real time, without a break. Here again the question is raised: What is real and what is fanciful, and how much does it really matter in this harsh world?
Birdman takes a dark and ironic view of human foibles, especially the egocentrism of actors, and doesn’t offer much real-world hope for the friends and family who become the collateral damage in their wake. Its ultimate message seems to be that, since life usually sucks and anything that can possibly go wrong will, escape into the fantasy world of a comic-book movie soothes the wounded soul better than any “serious” play – and beats real reality by a mile. But an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheeky humor continually leavens and levitates the heavy burden of this fatalistic assessment. In our own heads, at least, we fly.