Michael Keaton and Edward Norton Square Off in 'Birdman'

A onetime Hollywood superhero takes a stab at respectability by adapting Raymond Carver’s writings to Broadway in Iñárritu's hallucinogenic satire of the entertainment industry.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zack Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan
Rated: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-10-17 (Limited release)
UK date: 2015-01-02 (General release)

Part backstage melodrama and part screed in the name of art, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is nearly as frazzled as its protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Back in the pre-Marvel movie era of the '90s, Riggan was the winged superhero Birdman. He made three movies that grossed billions and then chucked it all away. And, like many other actors blessed with the role of a lifetime, he is both embarrassed by his legacy and eager to regain its mantle of fame.

Years later, Riggan is fighting for relevance. One major stumbling block (and there are many) is his confusion over what relevance might mean. Most conventionally, Riggan imagines it would mean being recognized as a serious, legitimate actor. To that end, he’s written, directed, and financed a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, in which he's also starring. No surprise, his notion seems old-fashioned to his daughter and personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone), who's convinced that social media convey relevance.

Yet another opinion is offered by Riggan's old superhero character, manifesting as a voice in his head and occasionally in physical form (unseen by anyone else). In a deep Christian Bale-lie Batman growl, Birdman berates Riggan for straining to prove himself by trotting the boards. Even as Riggan argues with himself, those around him tend not to notice because, well, everyone knows actors are crazy. For us though, Riggan's internal debates with his selves are visible, beginning with a scene at film's start, where he's floating in a lotus position in his dressing room, able to move objects with a flick of his finger.

This serenity gives way almost immediately to a helter-skelter of backstage chaos. The Carver play is just about to start previews when Riggan's costar is beaned on the head by a stage light. As luck would have it, renowned stage actor Mike (Edward Norton) is available to step in, since he’s dating one of the female leads, Lesley (Naomi Watts), and has been running lines with her.

Right away, however, Riggan finds his new costar's Stanislavski Method-isms gruelingly irritating: Mike complains the prop gun looks too fake to scare his character, he needs real gin in his glass on stage as well as a tanning bed to get into character. The results of Mike's shenanigans are unpredictable and often electrifying: Norton seems energized here, as wiry and ready to go as the film’s terrifically off-kilter, percussive score, all free-jazz rolls and break-beat syncopations with the occasional instrumental soar.

At first, it seems like Alejandro González Iñárritu and fellow screenwriters Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone, and Armando Bohave have cooked up a battle of wills between Mike and Riggan, inspiring tremendous performances, as in the director's Babel and 21 Grams. As such, Birdman works fantastically for a time, the focus on the actors apparently underscored by the film's apparent-single-take trick. The two men curse and shred each other in skirmish after skirmish, the camera jutting in on their furious faces as they debate the nature of truth in acting and life (with each position as hypocritical and self-serving as you might expect). During these moments and others, Emmanuel Lubezki’s mostly handheld cinematography remains at once energetic and gorgeous, a rare combination that gives this guerrilla operation a lacquering of observable respectability.

Birdman's audacious dynamic changes, though, when the plot pushes Mike to the side to focus on Riggan's other conflicts. Several set pieces stand out, particularly a face-to-face blowout between Riggan and the all-important New York Times theater critic (a fiercely acerbic Lindsay Duncan), incensed that a Broadway stage that might have employed trained stage performers is instead hosting a make-believe actor, a celebrity. As Riggan’s fantasy interludes pick up speed and force, the film’s point of view both sharpens and darkens. The satirical drubbing of Mike’s Method pretensions and real-life fakery is near-continuous, but Birdman's most lethal venom is directed at the “apocalyptic porn” ladled out by Hollywood rather than the actors who are just trying to find their way and leaving their blood on the stage.

This focus doesn't mean the film ignores its own stunt casting, recognizing but hardly showcasing Keaton’s past as a two-time cinematic Batman. As Riggan’s meltdowns and comic humiliations (one most obvious instance being his run through a crowded Times Square in only his underwear) become increasingly intense, we're reminded less of the Caped Crusader than Keaton's rattled everyman roles in family comedies by Ron Howard and John Hughes, a guy just trying to keep his head above water. But for all Riggan's seeming ordinariness, he yet compels our attention, much as he does the Broadway audience watching his sweaty, sometimes brilliant stabs at what he believes to be truth. We find it difficult to turn away, even if we're not entirely clear what's relevant, or what that might mean.


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