First, let’s dispense with the inevitable assumption: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was not written for Michael Keaton. “Bird” is not a lightly fictionalized “bat.” And as for the timeline of the main character’s backstory—1992 is mentioned, along with the general opinion that he lost his A-list status two decades ago—well, that’s just one giant coincidence, OK?
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a near masterpiece, so it’s not like it doesn’t offer anything else worthy of discussion. But the Batman parallel is so right in your face, so seemingly obvious, that Iñárritu and Keaton’s unequivocal denials are as distracting as if they’d just gone with “Yeah, it’s Michael’s The Wrestler, whatever.”
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor whose career peaked when he played a franchise superhero. After refusing to sign on for Birdman 4, however, Thomson’s above-the-title pull weakened, relegating him to, one imagines, supporting roles in films like Herbie Fully Loaded (or the Birdman-world equivalent). Some 20 years after his heydey, Thomson is struggling to regain respect and relevance by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story.
Oh, and he can also levitate. And use telekinetic power. And hear the growly, Dark Knight–ish voice of his alter ego, which sometimes tells him he’s a rockstar but is mostly a verbal abuser. Cognitive behavioral therapists have a cutesy name for the latter: negative self-talk.
Birdman goes to dark places, but compared to previous Iñárritu films like Biutiful and 21 Grams, it’s pure comedy. Keaton’s Thomson is an amusing, fast-talking mess as he freaks out while prepping his play for previews. Among the new multihyphenate’s problems: One of his actors is awful and needs to be replaced at the last minute; that replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is a know-it-all, button-pushing, yet freakishly talented dick; Thomson’s girlfriend and co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), tells him she’s pregnant; and his daughter and assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), is full of fury as she struggles to stay sober.
Iñárritu wrote Birdman with three others, and the satiric script has so much to mine. Its prominent meta-theme is the fickleness of celebrity and the state of journalism, particularly in this age of social media and viral superstars. (Thomson participates in a very funny, spot-on roundtable interview with reporters who range from the philosopher-quoting to the absurd rumor-espousing.)
Professional critics are ripped apart. (Ahem. Only those with an agenda, that is.) Both Thomson and Shiner, and possibly Sam, exist to prove the notion that talent and demons are unavoidable bedfellows. A handful of times, characters perch on ledges, implying both despair and the “no risk, no reward” ethos.
More impressive is the film’s captivating stylization. A jazz-drum score, waxing and waning, is the ideal soundtrack to Thomson’s troubled mind; it’s a laugh when Iñárritu occasionally shows a drummer or a whole corps in a panning shot. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the panning shot: Iñárritu and Gravity’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki crafted Birdman to look like a single two-hour take, the camera fluidly following Thomson and others through the narrow back halls of the theater or outside Times Square. Unlike 2002’s Russian Ark, here, the filmmakers used cheats for the effect. But it’s graceful and gorgeous, and with the story’s days undefined, it gives the audience a sense of what it’s like to be the alternately delusional and determined Thomson through every waking hour.
Things meander a bit toward the end, with some characters disappearing and a strong feeling that Iñárritu should have yelled “Cut!” at least twice before the credits finally do roll. What seem at first to be excessive minutes are soon justified, though, and a third perfect moment to turn up the house lights presents itself. By then, you’ll be too bewitched by Thomson’s life to remember that it’s ostensibly about Keaton’s.
Birdman opens Oct. 24 at E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.