Michael Keaton has had a lot of great roles in his stories career, but he’ll always be remembered as the guy who starred as Batman, and is considered by many to be the best Batman ever. But after a couple of those movies he ducked out of the franchise game, and kind of floundered around looking for his niche until only recently things started to pick up. The more you know about Keaton and his career, the easier it will be to get sucked into Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s dizzying, meta, and oh-so sublime comedy Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which features the perfect synthesis of technical acumen with an actor at the height of his powers.
It’s a wild change of pace for Inarritu, known for directing emotionally-crippling dramas like 21 Grams, Amores Perros, and Babel, and it shows he can do pretty much anything he puts a mind to. Birdman is a trip right from the beginning; part savage takedown of media criticism, part mid-life crisis comedy, and part superhero origin story. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, whose career has been defined by the $1B-grossing blockbusters he starred in as Birdman, a superhero literally (and comically) dressed up as a bird. Years later he’s still haunted by those films, and in his desperate bid to be a true thespian worthy of respect, he’s attempting an ambitious stage play of a Raymond Carver short story. The film even begins with this quote from Carver, which is inscribed on his tombstone…
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
There’s even meaning in the selection of Carver, who is regarded frequently in the film, as a sort of muse for Riggan and his arrogant superstar lead actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Carver was a playwright known for defying stereotypes and labels, and Birdman is a film that defies easy categorization. In fact, Riggan has a particular disdain for labels, as expressed during an angry tirade with a theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) holding a nasty grudge. It’s clear Inarritu, who co-wrote the script, has a bone to pick with critics in general, and he throws some seriously sharp elbows getting his point across. For Riggan, who is in the midst of one heck of an existential crisis, they may be writing those words on his own tombstone if this play isn’t a success. As his mental state begins to unravel (or does it?), we see him exhibiting the powers of Birdman, especially when he’s deep in hallucinatory conversation with the gravelly-voiced hero.
And yet Birdman isn’t just some self-serving passion project, it carries real weight as Inarritu perceptively explores obsession and celebrity culture without losing any of the film’s absurdist flourishes. Helping to keep one foot in reality and the other in bizarre fantasy is DP Emmanuelle Lubezki, whose camerawork dazzled us in Gravity last year. He’s actually more impressive here, seamlessly presenting the film as one continuous shot stretched for the duration. While he uses a number of tricks to get there, and finding them may be another reason to see the film again, it’s an added touch that is proves to be absolutely crucial to the story. In general, movies about the making of movies or Broadway plays are common, but there is nothing about Birdman that is common. In a way it feels like the surreal comedies of Charlie Kaufman if turned up to eleven.
The brilliance of the film extends to the performances, as well. This is basically a four-man show with Keaton at the center, but all are perfectly cast and bring a bit of real-world baggage to add context to their characters. Keaton brings a manic energy that gives the film much of its life. It’s difficult to tell if the fury boiling beneath Riggan matches some of Keaton’s own concerns about the industry and his career, which hit a lengthy barren stretch as he got older. The first half of the film is owned by Norton, though, whose performance as the method-acting Mike Shiner hilariously plays up his real life reputation for being hard to work with and volatile. It’s good to see Norton loose and free-wheeling again; we haven’t seen it nearly enough since Rounders and Fight Club. Doing some of the best work she’s ever done is Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter, Sam, recently-released from rehab and now working as her father’s assistant. She’s one of a handful of outside observers keeping tabs on the chaotic production while struggling with her own issues, many of which burst forth in one incredibly blistering screed about her father’s need for acceptance from a world that has forgotten him. It’s powerful stuff, and even if she doesn’t get much else to do that scene is more than enough. Others make the most of smaller roles. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough complete the foursome starring in Riggan’s play, adding to the aura of crises surrounding the entire project. Zach Galifianakis, in rare straight-man role here, is solid as Riggan’s best friend and manager, while Amy Ryan lends the film her usual brand of fire and heart as Riggan’s caring ex-wife, perhaps the one person who truly gets him.
Backed by a persistent, percussion-heavy score that adds urgency to a film that never slows down for a heartbeat; Birdman is consistently entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, and genuinely surreal. Birdman is a remarkable achievement on both sides of the camera, and it’s going to be tough for any film to compete with it as the best of the year.