A bizarre hybrid of a midlife crisis comedy and a backstage drama, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the kind of philosophical and challenging film the director is known surprisingly pitched with a playfulness that he’s never used before. The material isn’t as morose as Amores Perros or 21 Grams or Babel, but it is just as challenging, and visually it is his most virtuosic work to date.
Michael Keaton has already racked up considerable buzz for his performance as Riggan Thomson, a screen actor who — in a parody of Keaton’s own career — gained international acclaim in the 1990s by starring in the Birdman superhero movies before stepping away from the franchise for more serious work.
The movie introduces to Thomson in the present; he’s now a has-been remembered solely for the Birdman movies, trying to re-invent his career by writing, directing, financing, and starring in a pretentious Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We talk About When We Talk About Love”. It’s the day before preview night, and things aren’t going well. He’s threatened with a lawsuit after a co-star is injured; the subsequent replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is a bad boy who’ll draw an audience, but seems determined to wreck the production as well; his female lead/girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant; and Thomson is at loggerheads with daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant.
It’s a lot of pressure on one man who’s already starting to crack — the opening shot of the movie is of Thomson meditating in his dressing room, clad only in tighty whities, sitting cross-legged, and floating a few feet off the ground (you read that correctly — and his grip on reality loosens as the pressure increases. Delusion creeps in, and Thomson begins seeing and hearing some very odd things, including the voice of his Birdman alter ego, imploring him to knock off the pretentious bullshit and don the costume for Birdman 4.
Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo send Thomson along a fine line between delusion and magical realism, and the way the director blurs the lines between reality and whatever the hell it is that’s happening to Thomson onscreen is nothing short of astounding. First and foremost, Birdman is filmed in the guise of a single uninterrupted take, a string of tracking shots that follow the actors around the stage, into the bowels of the theater, into its rafters, onto its rooftop, around the streets, and in through windows in ways that Alfred Hitchcock always dreamed off but never had the technology to pull off. Just as impressively, Iñárritu and company compress time while doing this, allowing the story to play out over a couple of days without a visible cut, working in Thomson’s strange hallucinations — from moving objects to giant bird-monsters — into the scenes with and without use of CGI. (In fact, one of the best of such moments is one of the movie’s simplest: As Riggan and Shiner walk down a busy New York street they pass the drummer who’s been playing the movie’s soundtrack for the past hour or so, in a perfectly seamless audio mix.) It’s a near-seamless concoction of onscreen surrealism that would make the likes of Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze green with envy.
All of which would be for naught if not for Keaton’s soul-bearing performance. Riggan Thomson is an exaggerated version of the man, for sure: Keaton’s career never really tanked after he walked away from the Batman franchise, it just slipped under the radar as he opted for less high-profile work. Still, there is that perception about him — and Norton, as well, after he parted ways with the Hulk. Both actors take sporting pot-shots at themselves, as well as a few off-the-cuff jabs at Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner, and others riding the superhero super-stardom zeitgeist, as if to offer a warning: “We were there once. Trust us — you’ll want to have an exit strategy for when then time comes to take the spandex off.”