It’s been said that when the movies want to make fun of show business, they turn to the stage, and vice versa, but both Hollywood and Broadway take their lumps in “Birdman,” a compelling tale that’s a backstage drama, a character piece, a stab at magical realism, and much more.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and legendary cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) have used camera and editing tricks to make the film look like one continuous take, and while it sounds gimmicky, the constantly moving camera and seeming lack of edits underscore the jitteriness of the proceedings, from various characters desperately holding on to their fragile egos to the million catastrophes that beset those panicky final days before a Broadway opening.
It’s not a real-time movie — we jump ahead in time during some of those camera swoops — but the lack of edits jacks up the tension within scenes, especially with Antonio Sanchez’s percussive, bebop soundtrack underscoring the action.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thompson, an aging Hollywood star best known as the star of the “Birdman” superhero franchise. Desperate to regain the public’s good graces — Riggan’s compassionate ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) tells him, “You always confused being admired with being loved,” — he has sunk his money into a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” that he’s starring in, writing, and directing.
Previews have just begun, and everything seems to be a shambles: An actor gets hit by a falling light and has to be replaced with arrogant Broadway fave Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), whose girlfriend Lynne (Naomi Watts) is already in the cast; co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) tells Riggan she’s pregnant and the baby’s his; Riggan’s recently-rehabbed-and-possibly-relapsing daughter Sam (Emma Stone) resents her father’s late-in-life attempts to be part of her life; and a toxic theater critic from The New York Times (Lindsay Duncan) has already decided to shut down the show sight unseen because she resents untrained interlopers from Los Angeles. (“You people give each other awards for cartoons and pornography.”)
Putting aside this baseless and infantile loathing of the critic class, “Birdman” is an often intelligent and unpredictable look at actors, loving their spontaneity and creativity without glossing over their emotional needs and volatility. Riggan is so consumed with self-doubt that he often hears the voice of Birdman in his head, telling him to abandon this artsy-fartsy stage business so he can return to the screen for the “apocalyptic pornography” that global audiences crave.
Iñárritu shouldn’t be one to throw stones: emotional pornography is often his stock in trade, with heavy-handed, unearned-bummer message-fests like “21 Grams,” “Biutiful,” and “Babel” on his résumé. “Birdman” sees a previously untapped sense of humor; his screenplay (written in collaboration with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo) features a mordant sense of humor, full of characters who know how to crack wise even when they’re falling apart.
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The director has wisely assembled an ensemble of performers who know how to handle a long take; this will certainly rank among Keaton’s career highlights — in a role that allows him to completely dump out his paintbox and show a vast range of emotion — but everyone shines. (Keep an eye peeled for comedy all-stars Merritt Wever and Zach Galifianakis, both squeezing every drop out of their smallish roles.) While Lubezki’s bravura camerawork (particularly in a segment involving Times Square, a packed Broadway theater, and a skivvies-clad Keaton) threatens to steal the show, these actors all know how to draw focus.
The film’s more fantastical moments, courtesy of Riggan’s imagination — the conversations with Birdman, the actor’s apparent telekinetic abilities — often border on the precious, but the writers are mostly successful at circling around and making them pay off at the end.
In an early, funny scene, Riggan complains that Robert Downey, Jr., Michael Fassbender, and Jeremy Renner all got more out of putting on a superhero costume than he ever did, but “Birdman” serves as a potent reminder that even if Keaton was comic-book when comic books weren’t cool, the actor still has plenty left in his utility belt.