Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is, we are told, a washed-up actor looking for a shot at artistic redemption. And hey, why not plumb the depths of writer Raymond Carver for some insights into the human condition and put it on Broadway? The problem is, Riggan has an inner voice with an edge to it, and lo and behold, it’s the ghost of Riggan’s most beloved role: Birdman, a superhero who… what does Birdman do anyway? Well, fly, of course, and the costume looks cool, to be sure. But this inner voice may just drive Thomson, during the week of the play’s opening, over the edge—along with everything else around him.
Kind of a mix between 8½ (what does the creative person do who may be out of ideas?) and Black Swan (will fantasy destroy one’s reality?). Altogether original in its search for what makes performers tick, Birdman or the Virtue of Ignorance is a movie chock-full of visual invention, but crucially it’s a pitch-black comedy about the plight of Riggan’s crumbling sense of reality and the mishaps in his production.
Of course, Riggan can’t just act in this play. He’s directing it and has adapted the material, and he has a whole host of problems. One of his actors gets knocked out from a falling light during a rehearsal and needs to be replaced. Since all the other actors Thomson wants are making superhero movies (ho ho), he turns to Mike (Edward Norton), who is one of those ultra-successful, prima donna, method actors, the kind that may just “use” an erection in a scene on stage. Meanwhile, Riggan’s addict/recovering daughter, Sam (Emma Stone, wide-eyed to the point of looking like an anime character), pops up to remind Riggan that he doesn’t really matter. At all. No matter what he does.
There are other predicaments: temperamental actresses; Riggan being locked out of the theater during a performance and then running around half naked in Times Square (whoa); and a possible baby on the way. On top of it all, Riggan has special powers, like being able to toss objects across a room with a wave of his hand, fly across a city, and cue an orchestra with the snap of a finger. Throughout director Alejandro G. Iñárritu takes sharp jabs at the entertainment industry. Movie franchises are a target, but not to the extent of, say, Tropic Thunder, as well as actors’ ego and the drive for fame.
The film is a cinematic acrobatic feat from the director and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Ninety-five percent of the film is presented as a series of long takes, from the beginning with Riggan in his dressing room to a moment on stage that is meant to shock the audience (again, Black Swan comes to mind). The technical achievements aside, it’s an actor’s movie, and without such strong performances the movie could fall apart.
Keaton leads the way with a performance that makes Riggan full of himself, confused, hysterical, harrowingly funny (watch as he tricks an actor with a sob story; it might be the biggest laugh of the film), and rather poetic at times, too. Keaton finds just the right tone when it comes to confrontations both big (with his daughter) and small (an encounter with the powerful New York Times critic).
But don’t forget Edward Norton, who is flat-out brilliantly comedic and not too over-the-top, and Zach Galifianakis, who plays the straight man to Keaton’s bat-guano Riggan. For a film like this to work—and it does, smashingly—the actors have to step up to the level of the wild craftsmanship on display. All make this exciting and vibrant and too crazy to take in all at once, and that includes Naomi Watts, who gets to do something totally different than her last Iñárritu performance in 21 Grams.