Michael Keaton Takes Flight In Bold, Brilliant "Birdman"

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” Those twelve words – stuck to a Broadway dressing room mirror, citation stubbornly out of focus – best encapsulate “Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance),” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s dizzying, daring master class in cinema. Like its lead character, the movie is a malcontent, utterly unconcerned with reality apart from the construction of its own, unsatisfied to merely play with our preconceptions of film itself. No, Inarritu and his star-powered cast tear those ideas apart, tape them back together, and repeat, packing motion picture, stage play, graphic novel, and gossip column into one surprisingly accessible 100-minute package, tying it together with ribbons of scalding satire.

None of this is to mention that in a world where normal features comprise of thousands of shots, “Birdman” gets by on, oh, about five visible cuts. The rest is constructed to look like one continuous shot.

It’s a surprising leap for Inarritu (“Amores Perros,” “Babel”), a supremely gifted but typically morose storyteller who’s never tried comedy, let alone something as fleet of foot as “Birdman.” It’s a work so fiercely self-aware that it’ll drive many away on sight, but its multi-layered performances and attention to detail are second to none. The filmmaker and his indispensible crew do things with time and space few others have attempted, finding a measured balance of ambition and foolishness, turning a project that could have gone oh-so-wrong into something oh-so-right.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an ex Hollywood A-lister whose early 90s superhero trilogy both made and broke him, burning bright and cratering like the mysterious meteor that opens the film. He’s set his sights on Broadway for his big comeback, adapting, directing, and starring in a stage version of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” With his recovering drug addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone), actress-girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) in tow, Riggan brings his familial dysfunction to New York’s St. James Theatre, the 800-seat house where he’s mounting his play.

As if Riggan’s life lacks for drama, friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifiankis) brings an unwelcome nervous energy to the proceedings as the show’s cast founders in rehearsals. When co-lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her beau, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a late-game replacement, Jake delights in the idea of legitimate star power in the cast. With Mike soon in place the production finds new life, ostensibly coasting into previews. Finally, everything goes to plan – everything meaning nothing, of course.

Riggan inevitably finds a new nemesis in Mike, the stereotypically volatile artiste, while having to face down his oldest foe – himself (or Birdman, to be precise). The gravelly, disembodied voice of Birdman haunts Riggan in his most private moments, bringing the ubiquitous on-screen mid-life crisis to life in a way as yet unseen. It’s one of Inarritu’s many means of taking the familiar and making it strange, implanting the film with a framework of sensical nonsense. In establishing a dream logic by which Riggin possesses the powers of flight and telekinesis, the movie takes on a life of its own. Its layers are such – a play within a film – that the only limit to interpretation lies in the imagination of the audience.

Among the pic’s best moments are its confrontations between Riggan and Mike, with Keaton impossibly shifting between different acting gears – an actor playing an actor who’s acting like he’s acting – and Norton matching him blow for blow. Melded with some superior physical comedy, these scenes are “Birdman” in a nutshell – everything and nothing all at once, working from whatever angle a moviegoer is posited. The film’s exceptionally long takes – a long as 15 minutes without an actual break – visibly energize the performers, erecting a mirror between performer and moviegoer, all equally invested.

It seamlessly captures the feel of a stage play – not just on a narrative level, but a visual one – with Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzecki using special effects to move through time and space while maintaining the illusion of one long 90-minute shot. Like a play, the passage of time happens before our eyes, but with a mix of time-lapse photography, artful CGI, and clever camera work. With camera gliding over all, actors enter and leave the frame only to re-enter moments later in the same place but a different time. As such, “Birdman” charges ahead as thunderously as its thumping, percussion-based score. It flows freely, round with ideas, pregnant with imagination, its helmer impressively capturing the elusiveness of dreams like an especially flighty butterfly in a screen-sized mason jar.

The film’s depth is nearly overwhelming, from the mundane – a commissary sign that reads “Broadway recycles” – to the grand – Keaton’s hilarious, evocative, profound stroll through Times Square in his undies – providing a canvas that can’t be fully taken in with a single viewing. From top to bottom, it’s Inarritu’s most thorough work to date, melding dissonant emotions and genres with ease, never giving short shrift to any of them.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what “Birdman” does best since it’s exquisite across the board, but Keaton unsurprisingly emerges as its lifeblood. As a character that all at once vaguely and explicitly mirrors the former “Batman” star’s career trajectory, the actor gives a career-defining performance in a role that no one else could play – much like Riggan Thomson himself, albeit to a happier ending. It requires a heavyweight performance to overshadow a top-tier Edward Norton, but Keaton does it, efforting an acting clinic that very much deserves to be singled out come awards season.

“Birdman” won’t appeal to everyone. It can’t. It’s too flippant for the self-serious among us, too artsy for mainstream audiences. But it’s kaleidoscopic without being confusing, its craft unrivaled, forging a new path within the medium – even moreso than Alfonso Cuaron’s technically remarkable but narratively challenged “Gravity” (it’s no surprise that the two films share a cinematographer). Inarritu has blended the best of both worlds here, wearing his creative heart on his sleeve for all the world to delight in. And for that, “Birdman” earns the highest of recommendations.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Classic)

Release Date: October 17, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Screenwriter: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence)