Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone. Rated 14A.
Michael Keaton will long be remembered for his time in the Bat cape, just as his character here, one Riggan Thomson, is best known for playing a superhero called Birdman. As seen right at the start of this literally phenomenal movie, Thomson is haunted by his ex-character’s telekinetic powers, ability to fly, and annoyingly gravelly voice. The actor himself, however, is virtually powerless, and is using his vestigial clout to stage an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories under the rubric What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—a thorny collection that also infused Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
Thomson’s career is riding on its successful run at Times Square’s famous St. James Theatre, where most of the action takes place before the fluidly gliding, seemingly edit-free camera of Emmanuel Lubezki, who does for backstage theatrics what he did for outer space in Gravity and nature in The Tree of Life. The film is a darkly comic departure for fellow Mexican transplant Alejandro González Iñárritu, better known for directing bitter, mutilayered pills like Babel and Amores Perros. In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), he sticks to a handful of archetypal yet highly individualized characters who stand in for the competing forces of show business.
You have to wonder if Thomson should have hired his volatile best friend (Zach Galifianakis) to produce his Broadway play, or if an angry daughter (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab is really the best assistant for the gig. Also questionable is his half-hearted affair with a young actress (England’s Andrea Riseborough), or if he should be enthusiastic about working opposite a young tiger (movie-stealing Edward Norton), who resents Hollywood posers and is already feuding with his girlfriend (Naomi Watts), also in the play, if barely.
While pondering his superhero past (and badmouthing similarly suited winners like Robert Downey Jr.), the actor’s production falls apart and comes back together, fuelled by Antonio Sanchez’s solo drum score, with Mahler and Ravel occasionally bursting through in moments of temporary grandeur. The two-hour movie may come across as a high-tech parlour trick to some, but Birdman soars even when its hero fails to fly.