“Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” asks this question and many others while taking us on a winding, self-referential journey. Though a certain darkness pervades most of Alejandro Iñàrritu’s movies, including Biutiful, Babel, and Amores Perros, this one also offers a comedic lightness without giving up on Life’s Big Questions.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up superhero actor who forgoes a fourth movie series production to try his hand at a new art form.  As we watch him levitate in his St. James theater dressing room, we can only assume that this new art form, a Broadway play he writes, directs, and stars in, is his higher calling.  Like so many artistic types, he is searching for honesty amidst fraudulence, corruption, and the mainstream action-packed bullshit that people not only watch, but have been bred to enjoy.   Riggan’s alter-ego, or rather, the version of himself who plays Birdman in the movie series, recurs as an intimidating deep voice and is brutally upfront about the current trend towards lowbrow blockbusters. In metafilmic moments, the voice explodes: the common people don’t want to see philosophical dialogue, sentiment, or poetic musings!  Cue music, cue explosion, cue beloved hero’s entrance. The New York City streets turn into the site of the next great action movie’s final showdown.  The film operates in the liminal space  between the barebones truth of stage acting and the enhanced reality of cinema.

Riggan’s hard-hitting daughter Sam is a breakthrough role for Emma Stone.  Recently released from rehab, Sam has gained a new understanding of “egocentric narcissism” and calls out Riggan for his embarrassing search for infamy. Humans have existed for a mere 150,000 years on this 5-billion year-old earth, she tells him, so why would it matter what we each do in a mere lifetime?  And, as she’s quick to point out, if he’s so obsessed with fame, how can he continue to exist in modern society without a Facebook page or Twitter handle?  No art form can popularize a nonexistent man.  At times,  it seems the hero is attacked from all angles.  The strikingly serious method actor, Riggan’s perfect last-minute addition to the show, is a sweet-faced Edward Norton playing Mike Shiner.  A rambunctious actor who lives for the stage, he critiques  Riggan’s thirst for popularity: “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.”   Riggan’s search for meaning through artistic creation is a familiar journey of frustration as he tries to make his way and leave his mark in a world teeming with talent.

But it’s the internal references to the importance and function of criticism itself that make Birdman really interesting.  In an entanglement at a local bar, Mike tells the New York Times Theater critic, a sort of god to the city’s theater going population, that a critic is to an artist what an informant is to a soldier—in other words, neither  critic nor informant can achieve what they desire (art and glory, respectively) and so they settle for lesser versions. Ultimately, however, aren’t both actors and critics just trying to be as true to their ideals as possible in their preferred medium? It may not be the only art form available to them but it certainly is the one that lets them communicate most honestly.  Perhaps the unexpected virtue of ignorance (among other things) is that, by blindly romping through civilian life, we stumble upon something that has genuine emotion, something that make us question our lives, relationships, and innermost desires.

Birdman does indeed offer us genuine, beautiful emotion. Iñàrritu shoots stunningly long takes,  following the characters’ every move, and gives his heroes and villains a particular immediacy. The audience shares in their triumphs and tribulations.  We feel the tensions between fading actors and young upstarts. We live the insanity of the  final rehearsals leading up to a Broadway opening. We gain an understanding of the characters’ psychological motivations and how those affect their personal and professional relationships. With spot-on casting, witty and sentimental writing, and Iñàrritu’s expert directing, Birdman is one of the best films of the year.