Watching Batman Forever is a little like spending two hours inside a happy asylum. Just about every character in the movie is undergoing some sort of an identity crisis, yet rather than making the picture feel ''dark,'' these various schizoid head-cases bounce off each other like brightly colored billiard balls. Whether heroes or villains, they all seem to belong to the same breed of fizzy, deranged exhibitionist. And the movie itself is a loony-tunes extravaganza in which having a split personality doesn't constitute a serious emotional trauma so much as it does a fashion statement.
Chief among the soul-torn weirdos is Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer), the Gotham City glamourpuss who's driven by personal demons to put on a black rubber bat costume contoured with a bodybuilder's musculature and become Batman, mystic vigilante of the night. There are, as well, a couple of megalomaniacal supervillains. Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) is a rip-snorting hooligan whose face or, at least, half of it has been deformed by acid into a purplish mash of vein and sinew (it looks like an exploding eggplant). An anarchic phantom who still remembers his days as DA Harvey Dent, he acts out his dual nature by making vital criminal decisions based on the toss of a coin. (Unfortunately, the role doesn't give Jones much to do besides scowl under his ugly makeup.) Then there's the Riddler (Jim Carrey), whom we meet when he's still lowly Edward Nygma, a long-haired techno-dweeb festering with thwarted ambition in the laboratories of Wayne Enterprises. Edward invents a device that allows TV viewers to merge with the images on their screens and then allows Edward to suck their minds into his, until he goes giddy with brainpower. The film's other key figures are Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), a sultry criminal psychologist who can't decide whether she's got the hots for Bruce or for Batman (no wonder they get along), and Robin (Chris O'Donnell), Batman's new sidekick, whose youthful-hotshot tendencies are fueled by a seething private vendetta.
The characters in Batman Forever are like addicts, each one swallowed up in his or her own obsession. And so is the director, Joel Schumacher, who gets high on color and movement, on the ripe possibilities of camp villainy. Schumacher's work lacks the Wagnerian grandeur that Tim Burton brought to 1989's Batman, and there's nothing in Batman Forever not even Jim Carrey, the human exclamation point that can match the teeming, bats-in-the-belfry inspiration of Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker. Yet Batman Forever is funkier and more satisfying than the scattershot Batman Returns. Although the film's frenetic rhythm is reminiscent of an Indiana Jones picture, visually Schumacher directs it like a musical, turning each image into eye candy, weaving one lush set piece into the next, as if he were the Vincente Minnelli of blockbusters. It's not just that the sets (Edward Nygma's demented pad, the charcoal Batcave) are entrancing; the moods they create define the characters.
The movie has a suave cheekiness all its own. It's spanked along by lines like Chase's blithe come-on to Batman: ''I'll bring the wine you bring your scarred psyche!'' And, for the first time, the series features a lead actor sleek enough to make the hero's Jekyll-and-Hyde turmoil seem a potent Pop-art dilemma. From the moment you see Val Kilmer's rosebud lips protruding from Batman's cowl, you know he's going to inhabit the role in a way that Michael Keaton, with his dyspeptic uncertainty, never quite did. Kilmer doesn't get to show a lot of personality he still has to think and speak in comic-strip balloons but he's commanding enough to make you believe in Batman as a stoic natural force.
There really isn't much of a plot. (The plot is: The villains try to kill Batman.) A hint that Bruce is going to confront a revelation about the murder of his parents comes to naught. And Edward Nygma's TV mind-control scheme could have used more visual zap. It's there mostly to explain how he metamorphoses into the Riddler that is, into the prancing figure of Jim Carrey at his most ecstatically psychotic. Still, what a pleasure it is to watch Carrey take over the movie! His performance builds slowly, getting gaudier and crazier (right along with his Riddler-as-mad-dandy outfits), until he's swiveling his hips as he tosses grenades, then turning into a deranged game-show host. If he sometimes seems like the punk son of Nicholson's Joker, that's because Carrey's comic persona is, in essence, an elaboration of Nicholson the cartoon sadist, the one who was born when he flashed his manic grin in The Shining and said, ''Honey, I'm home!'' By now, Jim Carrey is doing sarcastic takes on his own sarcasm, and there's something funny and a little scary in that. No wonder he's the star of the '90s I can't think of another performer who expresses his lack of sincerity with such conviction. B