Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of ignorance) puts Michael Keaton back where he belongs: at the center of a comic, edgy, exhilarating cinematic endeavor that makes full use of his expansive talents. Containing certain parallels that are impossible to ignore, Birdman casts Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a has-been Hollywood actor whose main claim to fame is that he portrayed the superhero Birdman, only to desert the franchise after only two films.
Now he wants to revive his career on Broadway by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s not long after the film begins that we realize that Riggan is fighting a war on many fronts: his new lead actor (Edward Norton) has an uncompromising desire for realism, as well as the ability to alienate anyone he comes in contact with; Riggan’s girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant—and would like to know where he relationship is heading; his recovering drug-addict daughter (Emma Stone) has a penchant for saying what she thinks, none of it being comforting to Riggan; he believes perhaps rightly) that the critics are out to get him for being a Hollywood dabbler without stage training); and all the while he is taunted by Birdman himself, a younger version that mocks Riggan’s pretensions towards art.
As directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, with a script by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, Birdman is riveting from start to finish. Filmed to resemble one continuous long take for most of the film, the effect is that of being thrust into Riggan’s external battles and inner conflicts. We follow him from encounter to encounter, most within the increasingly narrow confines of the St. James Theater (where much of the movie was filmed). Enhanced by a score that allows for classical interludes as well as an insistent drum score, Birdman takes on a journey through Riggan’s struggle to get the play ready for opening night—and prove himself to be a viable, relevant presence in the current cultural landscape.
The performances are all top-notch, with no false notes to be had. Edward Norton, who had his own brush with superheroism with The Incredible Hulk, is dynamic as the brash, arrogant Shiner who is both Riggan’s bane and possible artistic salvation; Emma Stone is terrific as Riggan’s plain-talking daughter who recognizes something of worth in both Riggan and Shiner; Amy Ryan makes her limited appearances count as Riggan’s concerned ex; Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough excel as the two leading ladies at professional and personal crossroads, while Zach Galifianakis is a revelation in a subdued, layered performance as Riggan’s conscientious manager. Towering above it all (almost literally at times) is Keaton’s powerhouse performance as Riggan. Whether he is trashing his dressing room, desperately trying to cope with Shiner’s machinations, attempting to justify himself to his ex-wife or the Times critic (an acidic Lindsay Duncan) or expressing encouraging endearments to Watts and Stone, Keaton takes Riggan’s contradictory qualities and molds them into one complex, entirely credible character who will perhaps reap the rewards come Oscar time.