Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone
Running Time: 119 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
There's an early scene in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) runs down a list of potential names to replace an injured cast member in his ambitious Broadway mounting of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." And they're all actual big name stars whose commitments to their blockbuster superhero franchises make them unavailable, even if the underlying feeling is that they'd never do it anyway. Twenty years ago Riggan was one of them, riding high on the success of his iconic Birdman role in a franchise he milked for three movies before the word "franchise" even entered the cinematic lexicon. But Michael Keaton is no Riggan Thomson. Well, at least not in reality. He is in the sense that he completely inhabits the headspace of this strange, self-obsessed character in the throes of a mental breakdown. Keaton was the only choice for this role not because he once played a superhero, but because he managed to escape just in time. One or two more Batman movies and this could have easily been a different conversation.
By all accounts of the man, the performance Keaton gives here is actually a massive stretch, as he never seemed at all vain, hung up on public opinion, or insecurely protective of his legacy. And he certainly doesn't appear to be a nervous wreck. But boy has he been missed. It almost seems unfair to affix the "comeback" label onto a performer who has been working consistently, if under the radar, for years, but we're selfish like that. In a good way. It isn't wrong to see our favorite performers being given the best material that will bring them the most respect and adulation. One of the big takeaways to come from the this film's release over the past few weeks is seeing everyone come to the realization that there are few actors more deserving of it than Keaton. It's something we've always known, but never really publicly acknowledged until now. Besides being a fascinating and funny meta commentary on the entertainment business, Birdman works as a satirical tragicomedy about a man who not only craves that validation, but desperately needs it for his life to mean anything.
On the surface, Riggan writing, directing and starring in a Raymond Carver adaptation appears to be a case of a faded movie star pathetically using Broadway to establish himself as a serious artist and gain credibility with the masses. Beneath the surface, that's also exactly what it is. And that deep, distinctive voice he keeps hearing in his head isn't afraid to tell him so. It's the voice of Birdman, telling him what a loser he is, and based on the evidence we have, he might not be far off. We find out he's already wrecked his marriage and career and now he's wrecking his play, produced by best friend and lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). His spunky, sarcastic daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, serves as his assistant while he's joined on stage by girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), called in as a last minute replacement.
With Mike, Riggan meets his match in a performer who proves to be even more self-absorbed than he is, and about ten times more difficult and obnoxious, hijacking the entire production to basically go into business for himself. But critics and audiences love him, which proves to be important as they struggle through previews and wait for the inevitable axe to fall from influential New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). It's make or break time for Riggan, who must also contend with the arrival of his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and Birdman, who proves to not only be a voice in his head, but an actual superhero alter-ego with powers of telekinesis and levitation.
Form rarely informs function as it does here, with a technical approach that should generate as much discussion as the story or performances. Iñárritu's whole movie appears to have been filmed in one unbroken take, as scenes don't exactly end but rather bleed into each other as the camera follows the actors, swooping in (like a bird?) from one area of the theater to another, or even out onto the street when necessary. It'll be bizarre and sometimes off-putting for some, but there's no question it injects the action with this breakneck pace and makes us feel as if we're in the theater, backstage spectators to a train wreck we shouldn't be seeing. With most films there's at least a moment or two when you're taken out of it, made fully aware you're just engaging with a piece of entertainment. This shooting style makes such a moment of pause or reflection on the audience's part impossible. You're just completely lost in it, submerged too far down the rabbit hole to even contemplate the implications until the credits roll.
Hilariously sabotaging rehearsals and previews, without giving a second thought to that what's left of Riggan's career rests on a vanity project, Norton's Mike is a terror. If anything, he thinks he's doing him a solid by royally screwing with it. And it's sadder still that he could actually be right. We see many scenes from the play and even certain ones multiple times, but it's because of Norton that each one is more hilarious and energetic than the last. Whether Iñárritu's trying to play with the media's perception of Norton being "difficult" in the same way his script toys with Keaton's image, the actor far transcends that in-joke to deliver a performance that somehow, someway makes this unlikable jerk a relatable and complicated person. We anticipate every bit of mischief he causes since the movie feels most alive when he's sharing scenes with Keaton, who unlike his bizarro onscreen counterpart, has no problem ceding the spotlight to his co-star. Norton plays such a strong antagonist that the movie briefly suffers when he disappears and the third act kind of fly off the rails, if such a description can even apply to a project like this. Let's just say it doesn't fly off the rails the way you expect it to.
If the production's really all about Riggan, than the movie's all about Keaton, with the actor reminding us how equally adept he is at tackling anything thrown at him, whether it be comedic or dramatic. Here he gets the chance to do both, and a whole lot more, all at once. He's always been tough to categorize and even cast because of that flexibility, so this ends up being the perfect outlet for a performer whose onscreen persona always seemed a bit too crazy and dangerous to fit into the box of a conventional leading man. With this role, he finally doesn't have to be pigeonholed like that, given the opportunity to play a difficult, often unlikable protagonist wrestling with crippling fears and insecurities.
There are those trademark Keaton moments where he flies off the handle and gets that manic look in his eyes, but his best scenes are the quieter, brutally honest ones Riggan shares with his ex-wife and daughter, the latter played by Emma Stone as you've never seen her before. Noticeably thinner an paler with her giant eyes eating up every corner of the frame, it's about as far a departure for the actress as it gets, abandoning her "good girl" persona to embody the angry and bitingly sarcastic Sam, whose real job is mostly to keep her father's raging id in check. And that she does, even when he doesn't want to hear it, facing off with Keaton and Norton and more than holding her own in an edgy performance few probably thought she had in her. In less showier roles, Watts and Riseborough are destined to be underappreciated, especially Riseborough, who's a feisty wonder in her scenes opposite Keaton. And who thought Zalifiankis would ever play the most reasonable character in a comedy?
This is a film that makes no bones about calling attention to itself at every turn and is completely in love with its strangeness, rarely hesitating to remind you of it in every scene. Tolerance for that unsubtle approach will vary, causing a debate as to whether all these techniques truly inform the story or Iñárritu's showing off. It's probably a little bit of both, but there's no denying those creative choices make for a far more intriguing experience than if it were presented as a relatively straightforward dramedy about an actor coming to terms with his past and ego. A performance showcase above all else, it can't be a coincidence that three stars of huge superhero movie franchises were cast in it, and as someone completely burnt out by the genre, it was thrilling to see it skewered, while still being dealt a compelling character study in the midst of the craziness. Birdman almost defies categorization, as it takes a while to really wrap your head around, assuming you're even intended to. And that's always a great thing.