“For what else is the life of man but a kind of play in which men in various costumes perform until the director motions them offstage?” – Erasmus
Once you add up the upcoming films from Marvel and DC studios, there are twenty-two “superhero” films being planned over the course of the next four years. Though decried for their paucity of artistic merit, what is often overlooked is that these films — with their depiction of a magic pretty much gone from some of our lives — are not only popular because of their enhanced action scenes but fill a void in the current paradigm saturated by a a materialistic culture that does not reflect our personal power. Of course, for those who feel their acting talents might be better utilized, these films are not their friend.
Case in point, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton, “RoboCop”) whose career in Hollywood took off with his role in the superhero film Birdman (or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), the title of the new movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Biutiful”). Though he has played other roles since then, the only one that prompts requests for his autograph is Birdman. Frustrated with how his career has become sidetracked, Riggan has turned to Broadway for redemption. Now middle-aged, Riggan attempts to resurrect his career as an actor by writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation for the stage of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki inside and around the landmark St. James Theater in New York City close to Times Square, the film follows Riggan’s frenetic attempts to put the show together despite overweening self doubts and a roller coaster relationship with the cast and crew, especially his co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts, “Adore”) and girl friend Laura (Andrea Riseborough, “Oblivion”). Also in the picture is Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), a production assistant who has recently been released from rehab.
Still resentful of her dad’s absence during her formative years, Sam is very critical of his refusal to use social media as a means of promotion. “You don’t even have a Facebook page,” she says. It’s like you don’t even exist.” Iñárritu creates a frenetic pace with long shots following different actors, while weaving in episodes of magic realism that include scenes of flying and the costumed Birdman, aka Riggan’s conscience, following him with advice about making another superhero movie. “Those people don’t know what you are capable of,” he says.
When one of the primary actors is hurt during rehearsals, he is replaced by the volatile Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, “The Bourne Legacy”) who gets into disputes with Riggan about how each scene should be performed while blatantly pursuing Riggan’s daughter, though he tells her he can only perform on stage but is impotent off the set. The three preview performances do not go well and a meeting in the bar with the highly critical New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan, “About Time”) who rails against actors and threatens to “kill the play” leaves him in a state of despair, underscored by his encounter with a street actor shouting the Shakespearean lines from Macbeth about how “tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”
Aside from his lawyer and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis, “The Hangover Part 3”), Riggan’s main anchor seems to be his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan, “Escape Plan”) who provides him with the ego boost he so desperately needs. In its attempt to create a satire reaching for wit and originality, Birdman touches on but mostly skirts around several different themes: The inability of an aging actor to adjust to a changing environment, the nature of our true identity beyond the roles we play in life, the art versus entertainment conundrum, and the inordinate worship of celebrities in contemporary culture.
Unfortunately, despite an Oscar-worthy performance by Michael Keaton in a welcome return to the screen and the film’s engaging moments of true energy, Birdman does not pause long enough between the drumbeat of a jazzy score by Antonio Sanchez, the lugubrious strings of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a pseudo-profound spirituality and its juvenile humor, to say anything meaningful about any of these subjects.