There was a hilarious Bill Murray skit on the old “SNL” called “¿Quien Es Mas Macho?” where Murray as a sleazy Mexican gameshow host asks his contestants “Who is more macho?” and presents them with a choice between Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalbán. The new film “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” skillfully directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, asks the audience that same stupid question. For two hours. The choice, in this case, is between former action hero Riggan Thomas, played by an electric Michael Keaton, and his professional wrestler-voiced alter ego, The Birdman. Indeed, who is more macho? Who cares.
First, a bit of backstory is in order. Keaton, a former comedian and favorite of the ’80s generation, shocked the movie world by going against type and playing Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton film, thus reigniting interest in superhero films. After its 1992 sequel, “Batman Returns,” Keaton famously walked away from the franchise. In a recent interview on CBS’s Sunday Morning Keaton said that “Birdman” had nothing to do with “Batman,” but that’s bullshit. “Birdman” has everything to do with “Batman.” In this Birdman alternate universe, Keaton’s Thomas accepted a third film in the Birdman franchise and then walked away because it left him hollow and jonesing for something that would legitimize him as a “serious” actor in his waning years. To flex his “serious” acting muscle, Thomas chooses to finance, direct, and write a play based on the seminal short-story writer Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” collection.
The film opens with Keaton in his dressing room, prepping for a rehearsal of the show. On the stage in front of his cast and crew, he’s clearly the alpha male of his own production, bossing around the performers and browbeating his male lead (Clark Middelton) with lectures on acting. That is until a light falls on the lead and the production is forced to find a new actor. Enter Mike, played by Edward Norton (who also played a superhero in Marvel’s middling “The Incredible Hulk,” by the way), a swaggering younger actor who almost immediately shoves Keaton off the alpha-male perch. From here on out, “Birdman” becomes a cliché of the aging estranged family man watching his masculinity stripped, almost literally (lots of Keaton in his underwear—shades of “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White), away by a young up-and-comer. From the Eagles’ ‘New Kid in Town’ to “Rocky V” to “The Wrestler,” this is nothing new, even if in this instance it is gorgeously, ambitiously shot.
“Birdman” is one long Viagra ad, a two-hour dick joke about impotence, losing one’s manhood, and the anxiety of growing old. By the time the physical Birdman shows up, you’re already tired of his deep, manly voice growling like a feathered Hemingway about “being on top again” and calling Norton’s character a “pussy,” and when he grunts out words like “brother” and “motherfucker,” it’s as if he’s Hulk Hogan egging you on to one more bench-press rep.
This macho pissing contest is unfortunate because the performances exploring this well-trod territory are fantastic. Norton and Keaton verbally sparring is something to behold. Their “old guy vs. young guy” shtick really makes you feel that this is Thomas’s last shot at greatness. And although it’s clearly a man’s world in “Birdman,” the best performance goes to Emma Stone (also a superhero vet; she played Gwenn Stacey in the mediocre “Spiderman” reboot) as Thomas’s daughter Sam. Though the script constrains her bad-girl character to clichés about her father not being there and other Estranged Daughter 101 lines, she slyly seduces Norton’s character and momentarily breaks free of the movie’s masculine tedium. And the moment when she verbally emasculates her father during an argument about smoking weed is a highlight. She’s really great.
A supporting cast including Zach Galifianakis as Jake, Thomas’s lawyer, producer, and best friend ,and Thomas’s ex-wife (of course), Laura, played by Andrea Riseborough, are little more than caricatures, though. Then there’s the “villain” of the piece, New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson, played by Lindsay Duncan. During a confrontation in a bar, Dickinson dismisses Thomas as just a “celebrity” and informs him that she intends to destroy his show without even seeing it. Duncan’s character has all the depth of a Disney villain and seems to function as a preemptive answer to bad reviews of “Birdman,” cutting down critiques of the movie before we even get to comment.
“Birdman” briskly moves toward a mock-tragic third act that includes a hasty homage to 1979’s “All That Jazz,” Bob Fosse’s movie about, well, you guessed it, an older man dealing with death and mortality, which just reminds us that “Birdman” is no “All That Jazz” or even “The Wrestler,” for that matter. Meanwhile, blockbuster-style filmmaking is the butt of many jokes even though “Birdman,” despite its ambitions and smarty-pants cinema swagger isn’t any less superficial than, say, a Michael Bay blockbuster. And it’s more of a con job (via special effects, it has been edited to look as though it’s one long, uninterrupted take) and a lot less fun. Can we just get an actual, magical realist superhero flick featuring Birdman instead of this hot mess meta-movie about Birdman and balls and aging men and art movies?