Birdman is a raging, exhilarating howl of a satirical comedy. In a casting coup that flashes meta in neon, Michael Keaton, now decades past his glory days as the star of two Batman epics, plays Riggan Thomson, a burned-out shamble of an actor who crashed and burned after playing Birdman, the superhero of a blockbuster trilogy. The wised-up, craggy Riggan despises the mechanics of the fame game but he’s hungry to be legit and on top again, so he rolls the dice by directing, starring in and adapting for his Broadway debut Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s his last-ditch stand to be an Artist but he’s also never left Birdman — or never let the character leave him — since he actively debates with him throughout the film, levitates in mid-air in his theater dressing room, and fantasizes himself zooming above Manhattan spitting fireballs from his fingers.
His avian alter ego (Keaton speaking in Christian Bale-esque growl) calls Riggan “a sad, mediocre actor grasping at the last vestiges of his career” and advises him to ditch the “piece of shit” play and instead cash in by doing a reality TV series. Yeah, Riggan is dazzlingly, crazily nutty like that — Walter Mitty grown middle-aged, tortured and bonkers.
Whirling around the ball of confusion that is Riggan are his supportive close friend and producer played by Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts as the play’s leading lady, Andrea Riseborough as his co-star and sex buddy, and a knockout performance by Edward Norton as a crazy-making egomaniacal nightmare of an actor, his co-star. The meta just keeps coming. Emma Stone plays the hero’s angry, fragile daughter freshly sprung from rehab and, although hers is a small role, she plays it to hollow-eyed, raw, acid-tongued perfection. It’s her best work yet.
It’s Keaton’s show, though, and, as the desperate, delusional, angry guy who has mortgaged his Malibu pad and sold his soul, he’s all in. He soars and scorches and deserves every bit of the praise and award attention sure to come his way. The movie mostly takes place in and around Manhattan’s venerable St. James Theater in which our hero is about to make his bow but, as shot by Oscar-winning cinematographic visionary Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), it’s as if we are seeing reality and fantasy co-exist seamlessly in one long, hallucinatory, impossible-to-figure-out take.
The ambitious screenplay is the work of Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and, for once, the latter, best known for directing achingly pretentious, doom-laden tomes like Babel and 21 Grams, feel like he’s shed his hair shirt. The movie is jubilant, riff-y with a jazzy loose score underpinning so many of its unpredictable, broadly funny, often achingly beautiful but sentiment-free moments.
Birdman comes at you in every direction and although it may not always be as probing as director Inarritu apparently wants us to think it is while it’s exploding and laying its insane poetry on you, man, it’s the only way to fly. As the house lights come up, your first impulse may be to sit there and let it happen to you all over again. ****