If you go see the universally praised Birdman, the story of an over-the-hill film star trying to make a comeback by starring in a Broadway play, I hope you enjoy yourself. I really do. That’s what movies are for—to provide enjoyment, a few hours of diversion. Genuine art transcends that shallow goal. It doesn’t really matter whether you enjoy The Brothers Karamazov; but if you’re ready for it, it will change your life, and that (along with its horrific plot) can be a painful experience.
Earlier this year the celebrated radio host Ira Glass made a fool of himself on Twitter, announcing that he’d seen a production of King Lear and that, let’s face it, “Shakespeare sucks. . . . No stakes, not relatable.” This is, of course, surpassingly stupid—King Lear is the greatest work ever written about the terrors of old age, which is certainly “relatable” to most people on earth—and it misses the point. Lear isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s a tragedy, designed to evoke pity and terror. Gripping, maybe. Ennobling even. Fun, no. Movies, however, are supposed to be fun. It appears that many critics found Birdman fun: They use words like “trip” and “ride” and “mind-blower” to describe it. I trust that they mean this. For all I know, you might agree; as I said, if you go, I hope you do. You’re out a bunch of money if you don’t.
Birdman is a depiction of a period of severe stress for an actor named Riggan Thomson—a period during which he is either battling with a psychotic break or developing supernatural powers. Thomson is played by Michael Keaton, who is mirroring his own experience of having been the first onscreen Batman in the two blockbuster Tim Burton films from 1989 and 1992. Just like Keaton, Riggan Thomson made hundreds of millions of dollars for the studios playing a superhero (named Birdman) in the 1990s, then fell off the A-list. Now Thomson is “putting it all on the line,” as the movie tells us more than once.
For me, there’s something cringe-inducing about movies that take the inner lives and struggles of actors seriously, maybe because in my experience there are few people on earth simultaneously less interesting and more self-involved than actors when they are offstage. The argument that actors are to be paid special respect because they’re out there every night “putting it on the line” is one of the solipsistic showbiz self-aggrandizements that drive me crazy. Firefighters and soldiers and cops put it all on the line. Actors try to make a living playing in front of others. From where I sit, that beats working.
Birdman’s cowriter and director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, made a film called Babel in 2006 that I dubbed, in these pages, “the feel-bad movie of the millennium.” This might be called the “feel-bad comedy of the millennium,” in which people behave badly and do silly things without a moment’s real levity, because Iñárritu keeps moving into faux-existential argle-bargle. That’s doubtless what has made the world of cinematic opinion go wild for Birdman, which carries with it the ridiculously portentous subtitle of “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” That, and the fact that, for no intrinsic reason, Iñárritu has filmed it as though the entire action takes place in a single take.
I had much the same reaction 30 years ago when the world of conventional opinion went hog-wild for My Dinner with Andre (1981), a movie consisting entirely of a conversation between two actors in a restaurant debating the meaning of life. In my estimation, My Dinner with Andre was like sitting through a dorm room discussion at a fourth-rate school whose advanced philosophy curriculum comprised readings from Carlos Castaneda and M. Scott Peck.
My Dinner with Andre was brilliantly staged by its director, Louis Malle, who managed to make something entirely static seem surprisingly fluid and lively. Birdman, by contrast, is one of the most overdirected movies I’ve ever seen; it’s as though Iñárritu was jealous of his cast and wanted to make sure we knew he was the real star.
There’s a confrontation near the end of the film between Michael Keaton and the critic for the New York Times, who informs him that she is going to kill his play because he’s a movie star and she hates everything he stands for. Keaton goes into a rant about how bad reviews are merely labels and nasty adjectives and mean nothing, especially since he’s going out there every night laying himself bare. One virtue of this scene, maybe the best in the movie, is that it puts every critic on notice: Attack this movie and you’re a vampire, feeding off real life.