I’m jazzed by every tasty, daring, devastating, howlingly funny, how’d-they-do-that minute in Birdman. Like all movies that soar above the toxic clouds of Hollywood formula and defy death at the box office, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s cinematic whirlwind will bring out the haters. They can all go piss off. Birdman is a volcano of creative ideas in full eruption. Buy a ticket and brace yourself.
The short take on Birdman is that it’s a showbiz satire. Yeah, like Pulp Fiction is just a crime story. We’re talking reinvention here. Michael Keaton, in a potent, pinballing tour de force, plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who’s fallen on hard times since playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of blockbusters. Sound familiar? It should. After two acclaimed turns as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s Batman films, Keaton knows from what he’s acting. He knows what it’s like to fall short of the gold ring he once caught. Riggan’s creative way back in is to make his Broadway debut by writing, directing and starring in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story by the extolled Raymond Carver. It seems Carver caught the young Riggan onstage years back and sent a note on a cocktail napkin that said, “Thank you for an honest performance. Ray Carver.”
So there’s Riggan trying to be honest again by walking the tightrope of Broadway, where vultures make a meal of movie stars. It’s old news. But as filtered through the poet’s eye of this risk-taking Mexican visionary (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) and his co-screenwriters, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, we see things fresh. As suggested by the film’s subtitle, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, blundering can be bliss.
The key to Birdman is in the visuals, gloriously executed by camera genius Emmanuel Lubezki, an Oscar winner for Gravity, to give us the feeling that the film is unfolding in one sinuous, continuous take. Lubezki’s work is breathtaking, especially for the way it allows the film to veer from reality to illusion and back again with no break. So when Riggan flies above Manhattan and shoots flame balls from his fingers, we too are living with the crazy-ass visions in his head. Hell, we first see Riggan levitating in his dressing room and debating with the voice of Birdman (Keaton in a lower register), who tells him he’s too good for these theater pussies.
That leads to the introductions of other characters, all acted to perfection and all stressing out Riggan as he seesaws between narcissism and self-doubt. It’s great to see how beautifully Zach Galifianakis plays it straight and true as Riggan’s loyal producer. Naomi Watts excels as an actress in the play, as does Andrea Riseborough as the actress Riggan is shagging and Amy Ryan as the ex-wife who tries to restore balance to a conflicted man.
Besides Keaton, who digs deep and delivers the best performance of his career, there is award-caliber work from Edward Norton as a volatile actor who drives Riggan nuts, mostly because his talent is as big as his ego. And a never-better Emma Stone is raw and revelatory as Riggan’s embittered daughter, fresh out of rehab and eager to hook Dad on social media, where quality is gauged by Facebook “Likes.”
The very real achievement of Birdman, a dark comedy of desperation buoyed by Iñárritu’s unbridled artistic optimism, is how it makes us laugh out loud, curse the shadows and see ourselves in the fallibly human Riggan. Birdman spins you around six ways from Sunday. It’s an exhilarating high. No true movie lover would dare miss it.