In "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," Michael Keaton is something of a cross between an aging Icarus and the emperor with no clothes — metaphorical until the tighty-whitey Times Square streak.
As a latter-day celluloid superhero come to Broadway's proving ground for a rebirth, the Burning Man histrionics on stage and off are hysterically on point; makes you laugh, makes you cry. Irony lurks in every shadow.
Fittingly the film begins with a fiery object — A bird? A plane? A meteor? — cutting through cotton-candy clouds above Manhattan where the highly agitated life of the actor Riggan (Keaton) plays out. The city, as it happens, is the perfect spot for filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu to build his pyre. Exactly whose death is being celebrated or mourned — Hollywood? Theater? Society? A single shooting star? — well, that is the question.
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And oh, the flames that follow. Delicious.
They rise and rise, almost as high as Keaton and Iñárritu, who unlike Icarus know precisely how to calibrate this flight of fancy for maximum effect. Indeed, the director's surrealist portrait of modern times and the cult of celebrity is brilliant on so many levels that even the occasional downdraft can't keep "Birdman" from soaring.
But Keaton isn't flying solo. He's got an incredible troupe of supporting players, chief among them Edward Norton, burning almost as white-hot as Broadway bad boy Mike, and Emma Stone, adding her own maelstrom. As Riggan's barely post-rehab daughter Sam, the actress walks that knife's edge between imploding and exploding with demanding saucer-sized eyes that dwarf Gollum's.
The director, who wrote the screenplay with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo, piles on a polyglot of social dynamics, filmmaking tropes, stage traditions and every type of ego that has ever intersected with the culture of fame: Actors from A-list to Z, directors, fans, friends, family, critics, lovers, haters, social media and film itself.
Now to the bird and the man. They are both embodied in Keaton, voiced by him. Riggan is an actor of a certain age — no wrinkle too deep, no hairpiece too horrible, no indignity too embarrassing to escape this dark lens. Riggan is also in a constant debate with his alter-ego. That would be the Hollywood creation that made his career, a.k.a. Birdman, all black latex, feathers, attitude and no doubt a Comic-Con showstopper back in the day. The bird is disgusted with Riggan's notion that the theater is the right stage for his comeback, especially when movies are all.
Their debates are lively to say the least, a running tease that Iñárritu employs to drift into magically mystifying altered states as he shuffles reality and fantasy like a stacked deck. In fact the very construction of "Birdman," down to its bones, is a separate work of art.
Kevin Thompson's production design is like a living creature. Most of the action takes place in the complex backstage maze of a Broadway theater, where hallway passing becomes a feint and turn affair of bodies in tight spaces. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for sending us out of this world in "Gravity," is masterful in taking us down the rabbit hole in takes so long they leave you breathless. The sound and editing teams do not miss a beat. The music alone merits its own review. The film is framed by Antonio Sanchez's evocative drum score and lifted by symphonic swells that milk every melodramatic quote-unquote movie moment with a sly sarcasm that is as loving as it is biting.
It is not just Birdman's nagging that is befuddling Riggan. The actor is dealing — badly — with tension on all fronts, though in truth, the play's the thing. Riggan is not only star, but playwright, adapting from one of Raymond Carver's indelible short stories, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," and director.
The play's setup is two couples getting drunk on gin and arguing over what real love is. On stage and backstage, Riggan is grappling with his deconstructing cast. In addition to himself — a battle he seems to be losing — there is a current lover, possibly pregnant Laura (Andrea Riseborough ); fading movie star dreaming of her Broadway debut Lesley (Naomi Watts); and Norton's Mike, Lesley's loose cannon of a boyfriend but a highly bankable Broadway commodity.
Watching Norton and Keaton as Mike and Riggan run lines for the first time — feeling each other out, pressing each other's buttons — is wicked fun. Their warring bravado brings out the worst in the characters, the best in the actors throughout the film.
As Iñárritu is wont to do, he's loaded "Birdman" with intricately interconnected subplots. Remember the mosaic of political and social clashes that was "Babel"? One Oscar, six more nominations?
Zach Galifianakis as Jake, Riggan's longtime manager, lawyer, best friend, plays wonderfully against type — one of the few centered souls in this crazy world. Lindsay Duncan as Tabitha, a bitter New York Times theater critic/barfly intent on Riggan's public demise, is pricelessly scathing, while the tenderness between Riggan and his ex, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), is exactly what we talk about when we talk about love.
The side stories swirling around Stone ring with the anger and impatience of youth with age and are among the best. They play out in Sam's fractious relationship with her father and the truth-or-dare rooftop flirtation she takes up with Mike. Truth: Both have their distinct charms.
But just as the stage belongs to Riggan, "Birdman" belongs to Keaton. It is one of those performances that is so intensely truthful, so eerily in the moment, so effortless in making fantasy reality, and reality fantasy, that it is hard to imagine Keaton will ever be better. But Keaton, from "Batman" before or beyond, is one talent you should never count out.
'Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)'
MPAA rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark Theatres, West Los Angeles