If bit parts in this year’s “Robocop” and “Need for Speed” seemed to indicate that Michael Keaton’s incredible versatility had faded for good, then Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” surely proves the opposite. Keaton plays once A-list movie star Riggan Thomson, best known for a series of blockbuster superhero films in the late ’80s and noted for little else, now trying to make a splash by adapting Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway. Taking place almost entirely in NYC’s St. James Theater (in the illusion of one long take — “Gravity” DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s handiwork), Iñárritu’s dark, funny, emotional film immerses us in the turbulent days leading up to the show’s premiere and the mind of a man struggling to keep his grip on reality.
Frustration and doubt plague Thomson, who’s decided to direct and star in his production; Birdman, once a major box office force, is now manifested as an alter-ego of sorts (voiced by a more guttural Keaton), fueling Thomson’s resentment as an echo of more successful times and occasionally boosting his self-worth with an unrealistically inflated sense of superiority. (“The rest of these cretins just don’t get it”, is the gist).
His real nemesis, played by Edward Norton, is an arrogant stage veteran who enters the fold to replace a cast member who’s been incapacitated by a falling stage light (an event bound to cause a guffaw or two); as a critical darling, Norton’s Mike Shiner seems like a Godsend at first, but the two lock horns early when he causes an uproar during an audience preview (this is one of Norton’s most arresting performances since “American History X”).
There’s little I would change about “Birdman” — at nearly two hours, the pacing seems like it would be impossible to sustain, as the camera barrels down narrow hallways, tracks around dressing rooms and passes through doorways to seamlessly segue time-lapses between scenes. But it never falters, even as the film begins to skew more toward Thomson’s somewhat hallucinatory perspective. Iñárritu’s capacity for putting complex human emotion on display is easily as compelling as in previous films, but without wallowing in the same merciless despair that has pervaded his oeuvre to this point (e.g. “21 Grams” and “Babel”), and the script (a collaboration of Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo and Alexander Dinelaris, Jr.) gives the cast a lot to chew on, both comically and dramatically.
There’s not an uninspired performance in the lot: Emma Stone plays Thomson’s recovering-addict daughter, with whom he struggles to reconnect after a tenuous relationship; as if out to drive him over the edge, she develops an infatuation with the seemingly impervious Shiner, who eventually exposes his Achilles heel (among more literal body parts) after making everyone’s life miserable. Zach Galifianakis, radically against type, is the voice of reason amidst all the behind-the-scenes drama, which includes a fiasco with Thomson’s possibly pregnant girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and Shiner’s reluctant booty call (Naomi Watts), who describes her relationship with Norton’s cocky thespian as “sharing a vagina”. Amy Ryan straddles between deeply concerned and completely fed-up as Thomson’s ex-wife Sylvia.
And Keaton, appearing in most of the scenes, digs so deep that it’s hard to believe he’s walked away from the project with all his marbles. He inhabits Riggan Thomson with such exhaustive verve that it’s as if he were embodying an amalgam of his most memorable characters while also playing an exaggerated version of himself (the “Batman” career parallel notwithstanding), a cauldron of angst that boils over on a spiteful but influential New York Times theater critic (“What needs to happen in someone’s life for them to become a critic?!?” he spews at the woman before hurling a glass across the bar). His performance is so convincing — alternately funny, disturbing and heartbreaking — that, if I didn’t know better, would think it to be Keaton’s grand swan song. I hope that instead, it means a resurgence for one of the generation’s finest actors.