Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a masterpiece of moviemaking. Presented as if it were one continuous flowing shot, it gives a tremendously heightened sense of real life, of the seer inside us who follows paths — hallways, staircases, sidewalks — and bounces around in rooms day in and day out. This seer pauses on an ironic detail at the end of long hallway, focuses closely on the whiskers of someone’s face, and takes in the sun’s light falling across a vast landscape of skyscrapers. The gorgeous cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life) reportedly required painstaking coordination between the actors and cameras in terms of timing and blocking. This floating bubble of perception hears, too: cellphones, sirens, snatches of conversation and recitations of Faulkner are picked up outside the edges of vision.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor still only famous for his blockbuster movie role as the superhero Birdman two decades ago. These days, Riggan is struggling mightily to pull together a Broadway play, an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that he scripted, and is directing and starring in. His friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis in a straight role) is his producer, and the intense Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) soon joins his cast.
Riggan (the characters often pronounce it like “Reagan”) is haunted by his former celebrity — and not in a subtle, unconscious way, but in a heated vocal argument that he is having day in and day out with his Birdman alter ego. The macho, cartoonish rasp of his former fame and popularity mocks his every move as he tries to navigate a ridiculous onslaught of problems in both his play and his actual life. The man of breathtaking superhuman powers is now helpless inside the four walls of his dingy dressing room on the brink of a very public and humiliating doom and complete personal failure.
Birdman is set almost entirely inside and just outside of Broadway’s St. James Theatre. In silent witness, we glide through wardrobes, out on stage, up on catwalks, and out on the balcony roof of the theater’s loggia, where Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) sometimes perches, gazing out above West 44th Street. Sam is working as her father’s assistant while struggling with her relationship to him, and also with substance abuse. Stone’s desolate poignancy, particularly in one explosive head-to-head with Keaton, would seem assured of an Oscar nomination. Amy Ryan is wonderful, as always, playing Sylvia, Sam’s mom and Riggan’s ex-wife. Broadway newcomer Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) round out the play’s foursome. Laura is also Riggan’s current girlfriend. They are each also featured in moving moments.
At its core, of course, Birdman is a psychological drama akin to the one Riggan is trying to manifest on the stage. The movie’s entire cast is spot-on in terms of the kind of highly-skilled, professional acting that Broadway represents. Broadway’s standards are personified in this movie by New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a cartoonishly cruel villain. Her theatre-purist contempt for Hollywood celebrities deliniates one of Birdman‘s conflicts: the value of vapid, special effects-driven blockbusters vs. authentic human blood on the stage. Casting Michael Keaton, who famously turned down a $15 million offer to make a third Batman movie, as the has-been superhero, add a huge splash of comic relief — and the movie’s own special effects are awesome.
The most immediate reason to see Birdman as soon as possible, on the big screen, is to appreciate its heightened sense of life. Writer/producer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu brings a profound and ineffable sense of depth to the small moments, fleeting thoughts, and cheap objects marking our daily routes and rooted in our dreams. in his 2010 film Biutiful, he tenderly depicted atonement at the end of a very bleak life. In Birdman, there is much more humor balancing the desperation, and a greater sense of push and pull between the protagonist and the world at large. New York City is palpable as it flows around the characters and sometimes edges in on them — including one scene straight out of everyone’s most cringeworthy dreams.
Like life itself — and even more like a vivid and thoroughly engrossing dream — Birdman is also a jumble of potential meaning and contradiction that we’re left puzzling over. It doesn’t all make perfect sense. Great movies are often a little messy. I rate it four stars out of four.