Movie Review: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

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“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”

“I did.”

“And what did you want?”

“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

These words, titled “Late Fragment,” are by Raymond Carver, and they are emblazoned on his tombstone. They also form the epigraph to Birdman, a new dark comedy directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has made pictures like Biutiful, 21 Grams, Babel and Amores Perros.

Iñárritu’s pictures are about people standing at a precipice: We meet them at those moments when they must decide whether they are going to live or whether they are going to die. They are also about the life-force that finally courses through us all.

Michael Keaton plays a man named Riggan who, much like himself, was once a big Hollywood star, having starred in comic-book movies some 25 years ago: Birdman in this film, Batman in real life.

He seems to be on the verge of losing his mind. He’s starting to believe he really does have superpowers, that he can fling objects with his mind, that, hell, he can probably even fly.

When we meet him he is suspended in midair in his dressing room, meditating, and as the camera begins to float we are suspended, too. We will stay in that state of suspension throughout the film, as the movie sounds its themes of self-destruction versus creativity, selling-out versus integrity, and the human desire to feel yourself beloved on this earth.

That dark voice of self-doubt whispers in every ear, but when Riggans hears it, the voice of his demon comes in the form of Birdman: a low, husky, intense rasp.

Birdman nags him: We could triumph again, if you would only cave and accept the offer to make Birdman 4. After all, 60 is the new 30. Anyway, what are you–what are we–doing in this little theater, mounting a stage version of Raymond Carver’s classic short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”?

And you think you can direct it and act the lead as well? You’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Besides, nobody wants all these words. They want action!

And then, in Riggan’s imagination (and on the screen), New York City erupts around him in a CGI maelstrom. A monster roars in triumph or rage from atop a skyscraper, smashing up the city as helicopters swarm. The SWAT team comes crashing in, leaping atop cars, firing round after round. This must be a job for…Birdman! But this is meaningless special effects, bloodless action, and Riggan burns to create something with meaning. Something honest and true. Something that bleeds.

Birdman hopes to be a deep, dark truthful mirror held up to Hollywood. And who can doubt that Hollywood executives do think of us in precisely Birdman’s contemptuous terms? Here, though, the picture sets up something of a straw man. Complicating its critique is that, in the years since the Keaton/Burton Batman pictures, Christopher Nolan’s serious, ambitious Dark Knight films have come along to show that one needn’t choose between blockbuster and artistry, that a Batman movie can be as much an engagement with reality as an escape from it.

Still, the basic critique stands. There can be no doubt that the blockbuster-based film industry increasingly pitches everything at the level of a particularly cretinous fanboy. (Not to slag cretinous fanboys, entirely. I often find they’re the best-informed people around.)

Birdman creates the illusion that it is composed almost entirely of one single, sustained, headlong tracking shot. There is a street musician, a drummer, who seems to have taken up a residency under Riggan’s dressing room, beating out a permanent drum solo. As the camera gathers momentum and begins gliding through the labyrinth of the theater, his jazzy crashing reverberates around inside Riggan’s head, and ours.

Sometimes we see Riggan rolling around fist-fighting with Mike (Edward Norton), a cocky, hotshot actor who they bring in to replace an excruciatingly bad actor who got beaned by a falling spotlight. (An accident? or as Riggan, the play’s frustrated director, believes, the telekinetic fulfillment of his own wishful thinking?)

Mike is the doyen of the New York theater world. As Riggan’s manager (Zach Galifianakis) gushes, Mike’s presence in the cast will send ticket sales through the roof. Never mind that he’s a pain in the ass.

Though Mike is pretentious, he’s so damn good he gets away with it. He’s brutally honest on stage: In fact he’s so real and true that he’ll bust up a preview right in front of the audience if he feels it’s not ringing true, mocking everything from the set to the star. Riggan wants to fire him, but, as Mike taunts him, who else are you gonna get? Ryan Gosling?

Ed Norton is quite funny in the role. It’s fun to watch actors playing actors, sending up their own craft, their real-life anxieties, struggles, hopes and fears.

In fact, Mike’s so good that he can even insult New York’s most feared theater critic, The New York Times‘ Natalie (Lindsay Duncan) to her face, when they run into her at the bar next door to the theater where she composes her reviews. You can even see the faint traces of a smile play about her face during their interaction.

“Aren’t you ever afraid I’ll give you a bad review?,” she asks, and he comes back, “I’m sure you would…if I ever gave you a bad performance.” It’s true, and there’s some level of mutual respect between them for mutual honesty.

Mike’s dangerous because he genuinely doesn’t care what other people think of him. Vain, he stands naked in front a mirror in the dressing room, admiring himself, unselfconsciously preening as other people avert their eyes. (Well, Emma Stone, playing Riggan’s daughter Sam, sneaks a glance.)

Naomi Watts plays Leslie, Mike’s co-star in the Carver play and erstwhile girlfriend. Right before the curtain goes up, while they’re under the covers onstage, Mike finds himself ardent for love, and he tells her they should really do it, right there on stage. As you might expect, this does not go over well.

The kicker is, offstage Mike is impotent, in just about every sense. He can’t have a real relationship with a woman. However, he is able to strike one up with Sam, who’s fresh out of rehab, cynical and sullen. At first she finds him really obnoxious, but soon they have assignations on the roof, where she sits on the ledge, peering over for adrenaline rush: a substitute for drugs. They play truth or dare–let’s find out what we honestly believe.

Like Mike, Leslie is contemptuous of Riggan and everything he stands for (Hollywood). She tells him she intends to tear his play apart in print, sight unseen, to destroy it. Riggan has fallen off the wagon, and now he is drunk, and he tears her notes away. “You just label everything,” he exclaims, glancing them over. It’s lazy writing, he says, and it cost you nothing, whereas putting on this play cost me everything.

Along with madness, the impulse to self-destruction is the undercurrent of the film, the impulse to have this whole business of life, the painful struggle to create, over.

So when Mike snips at Riggan that he’d better chuck the obviously phony gun that Riggan’s character wields in the play’s final scene before turning it on himself, and get something better, more real, the suggestion sparks an idea in Riggan. After all, what they want, these awful critics, what they really want is blood. They want you to put it all on the line, to risk everything, maybe to die in life just like you die in your art…to die for your art. Then we’ll get good reviews! We watch with a mounting sense of dread.

At one point Riggan reads Sam, who’s been working as his assistant, the riot act when he detects a whiff of grass about her. It’s the last straw. The camera gazes as if to say “jeepers!” at Emma Stone’s huge peepers, flashing in anger. She explodes, and finally tells her dad about himself: You’re not trending or tweeting or viral. You don’t even have a Facebook page, for God’s sake! In fact, you don’t exist. It’s not that people love you, or even that they hate you. It’s something even scarier: it’s that they aren’t thinking of you at all.

And as she watches this scary truth come home and settle in around his features, she instantly regrets saying it. Here the movie is showing us something true about this fetishization of absolute honesty: Maybe brutal truth is not in fact always a good thing, per se. Sometimes in life it is better, perhaps, to suspend disbelief.

And yet, Riggan still has his celebrity. That means he is still beloved by ordinary people, tourists, the kind of people who don’t read the “Arts and Leisure” section of The New York Times. They are always excited to get his autograph, even when he accidentally locks himself out of the theater and must make a mad dash through Times Square in his underwear. Out come the camera phones, and the result is that Riggan finally “goes viral.” Finally matters.

We haven’t seen Michael Keaton in a little while. Some of us might not have seen him since Tarantino cast him in Jackie Brown in the late ’90s. It’s good to see that familiar face, which for viewers of a certain age evokes not just the Burton Batman films, but Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice and the decade of the 1980s.

He’s still got that mischievous twinkle in his eye, that particularly American sense of fun. Keaton really does put himself on the line in this performance, which is somehow captured in the quiet, poignant moment when he pulls off his prosthetic hairline, which is receding enough, to reveal the true, and even more retreating, one beneath.

The camera alights on Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s girlfriend. There is a surprising scene of female bonding between her and Naomi Watts, where their bonding over Riggan’s clumsy, cluelessly male attempts to praise them (while never actually saying what they truly want to hear), leads to some startled necking. Maybe this shows the sort of thng that can happen in the moment when people are under pressure. In any event, the viewer welcomes this development.

We linger in the dressing room as Riggan’s ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, visits. Ryan is one of my favorite contemporary actresses, and it is always a pleasure to see her work. Their scenes are uncommonly tender, wise and grownup, and free of enmity. The pain between them is in the past. What lingers is acceptance, and forgiveness, and indeed a form of love.

Formally, there is an interesting tension in this movie between the theatricality of some scenes on the one hand, and the purely cinematic device of the floating camera eye. The unity of that single tracking shot gives us a sense of the spatial unity of the theater, its dressing rooms and suites. This is a world where being on the cover of the “Arts and Leisure” section really is the most important thing in the world. (In real life, they really did put Keaton on the cover a few weeks back.)

We fall through the world, that headlong camera seems to say. Or, like Riggan when he dares take that risk, we may find that we really can fly. Soar. I won’t give away the fantastical ending, except to say that it is a lovely affirmation of the life-force.

I’d been thinking about this picture, letting it steep, and I fell to flipping through the pages of The New York Times Magazine. I came upon an essay by Lewis Lapham, written to accompany a photo essay about creative people in their 80s and beyond, who are still creating. Artists, scientists and the like.

“Why do they still do it?” Lapham’s essay asks. Why still struggle to put new things into the world?

At age 79, Lapham says, he has begun to understand: “Failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.”

And that, I believe, is what this picture is about.

Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other reviews at The Moving World.