Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Michael Keaton in “Birdman”

Given this movie’s underlying premise, I should say up-front that I have a love-not-love relationship with it. Yes, the acting is terrific. Given a script with substance, Michael Keaton, Ed Norton (truly amazing), and Emma Stone all received Oscar nods. I’m also big fan of Amy Ryan, who plays Keaton’s wife in one of her trademark low-key performances, of the kind she perfected in The Wire. The story itself, however, of a middle-aged man’s struggle to find himself amidst the debris of his messy family affairs and dwindling career is, for me, less interesting. (Trailer here)

In telling it, Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu pays homage to magical realism of the South American kind (an armful of calla lilies appears on a monument somewhere to Gabriel García Márquez at every showing of this movie). What appears to be happening on the screen—Michael Keaton levitating in the lotus position or, yes, flying—can be accepted on either a literal or a metaphorical basis, or both, depending on the viewer’s taste and tolerance.

In the story, Keaton is a Hollywood has-been (a former superhero called Birdman) tackling Broadway for the first time, directing and starring in a production of the Raymond Carver short story, “What we talk about when we talk about love.” The play is in rehearsal, and whether it will be successful is a toss-up. It looks unlikely. Meanwhile, Birdman himself keeps appearing like a nudgy pal, alternately flattering and browbeating Keaton and trying to lure him back into the gloriously popular action movies of his youth.

The Carver story recounts an alcohol-soaked evening when two couples try to sort out what love is, a question that has baffled sober people from time immemorial. Because of his own extreme vision of love, the ex-husband of one of the characters shot himself but “bungled it,” says the play. Later, he died. This might be a clue to the movie’s unwinding or not, because the extent to which the play-in-production is supposed to illuminate the movie is deliberately ambiguous. (I didn’t understand the subtitle, either, as it seemed to me that the characters were all too knowing.)

Numerous possible explanations (waking dreams, fevered thoughts, daydreams) could explain some of the action—especially the Michael Keaton character’s flying—which if you’re not overly hung up on trying to explain it rationally is thrilling. This is a movie that you have to decide to “just go with it” or face frustration. But the acting—and the bird costume!—is worth the price of admission. Liked the drumming. Rotten tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 84%.