BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
DIRECTED BY Alejandro González Iñárritu
STARS Michael Keaton, Edward Norton
Where to begin in tackling the numerous excellent qualities that make up the moviegoing experience known as Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)? The logical starting point would be Michael Keaton, whose superstar status really didn't extend much past the 1980s. His breakthrough turn as motormouth Bill Blazejowski in 1982's Night Shift remains one of the classic comic performances of modern times ("Is this a great country or what?"), and he extended his winning streak with such hits as Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice and Tim Burton's Batman twofer. But a hefty number of flops toppled his standing, and he now stands as less a bankable commodity than a Trivial Pursuit answer.
In that respect, he has much in common with Riggan Thomson, the character he plays in Birdman. Riggan was once an A-list movie star, having starred in three successful films as the superhero Birdman. But those days are long gone, and in an effort to not only revitalize his career but also to make Art-with-a-capital-A, Riggan has opted to write, direct and star in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is producing the show, his ex-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is serving as his assistant, his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is part of the four-character ensemble, and leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) is throwing herself into her work. Even his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) occasionally drops by to offer support. Yet mounting this play is hardly smooth sailing, not only due to Riggan's personal demons — his Birdman alter ego is always cluttering his mind, telling him he's going to fail — but also because of the arrival of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a popular Method actor who appears as a last-minute replacement to tackle the production's other male role.
Mike Shiner is one of the movie year's great characters, odious and unforgettable. A talented and dedicated professional who only feels alive when performing (in fact, he can only get it up sexually when he's on the stage), he threatens to derail the show with his boorish behavior and childish tantrums — all while delivering lofty speeches about seeking truth through performance. Keaton's been receiving all of the awards buzz — and he deserves it (he's terrific) — but Norton proves to be his match step by step. In fact, there isn't a weak link in this entire cast, with Watts in especially excellent form and even Galifianakis pulling his own weight.
In one respect, Birdman is a movie about a turf war, specifically the one that exists between Hollywood and Broadway. New Yorkers like Mike and the Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan, playing the most laughably miserable reviewer since Bob Balaban's film scribe Harry Farber in Lady in the Water) resent the fact that a shallow, callow celebrity would dare come to their neck of the woods and pollute the hallowed stage with an amateur production; Tabitha even goes so far as to tell Riggan that she plans to destroy his play in print, regardless of whether or not it's good. It's an insider topic made accessible through the terrific dialogue by writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Biutiful) and his three co-scripters, and it's joined by a cheeky dig at the film capital's obsession with superhero flicks, a look at the tempestuous backstage relationships that often inform a show (in this case, not only between Riggan and Mike but also Riggan and Laura, Mike and Lesley, and more), and musings on the fine line that separates artistic inspiration from out-and-out insanity.
Birdman, which shares some show business DNA with Bob Fosse's All That Jazz but tops it in nearly every regard, is further elevated by the constantly roaming camera of the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who finally won an Oscar for last year's Gravity after racking up noms for Sleepy Hollow, The Tree of Life and other eye-popping efforts. Working in tandem with Iñárritu and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, Lubezki apes the style of Hitchcock's Rope (or, if you will, the openings of Welles' Touch of Evil and Scorsese's GoodFellas) by shooting the entire picture in one continuous take, using subtle means when necessary to break stride but always maintaining the illusion of an edit-free effort. It's a nifty trick of the trade perfectly suited for a superb motion picture that's perpetually on the prowl in its quest for humor, insight and Art-with-a-capital-A.