Birdman is a sort of accidental metafiction dunked in surrealism or magic realism. If that loses you already, I don’t blame you, but the movie is a bit more nakedly entertaining than that. It’s a bit up itself with its talk of artistic integrity and “risking everything,” but the trick of the supremely gifted director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is that what must’ve been intensely difficult to film comes off as smooth, playful, fun. Birdman is in part a celebration of what movies can do, and despite the story’s inherent mopiness, there’s a pure-cinema jazz-riff feel to it. The movie is indeed a risk; it always seems on the edge of tumbling into pretentiousness, but the working-man self-abasement of its star, Michael Keaton, pulls it back.
Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Birdman, in three blockbuster movies. We are told, of course, that the script (by González Iñárritu and three others) did not have Keaton in mind, even though Keaton is a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Batman, in two blockbuster movies. I assume that once Keaton signed on, the script may have been tweaked accordingly, otherwise the line about Riggan last playing his superhero in 1992 — the year Keaton’s final Batman movie was released — is weirdly prescient. I also assume that Keaton in real life does not share Riggan’s occasional talent for telekinesis, though this always happens when no one else is around and may well unfold only in his head.
Riggan wants to make his big comeback, and bid for credibility, by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories on the Broadway stage. Disastrous circumstances lead to a difficult but brilliant actor, Mike Shiner (the brilliant and often-reportedly difficult Edward Norton), replacing an injured cast member, and the play heads into previews amid much chaos, ego, and tenuous sanity. Mike tries to have actual sex with costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) onstage. On another night, a drunken Mike tosses the script and makes a shambles of the set. A theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that she has decided, sight unseen, to destroy his play. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, teases Mike and herself with the possibility of a hook-up. And so on.
All of this, like Hitchcock’s Rope, is seemingly filmed in one swooping, unbroken take, which is especially impressive when Riggan’s fantasies go whole-hog metafantastical and helicopters fall from the sky while Riggan is tormented by Birdman and eventually becomes him. González Iñárritu plays around like Welles did, a boy enchanted with his train set. Birdman is probably no Wellesian feat — it’s too intellectually amorphous for that; there doesn’t appear to be a sharp intelligence behind all the game-playing, though Emma Stone is refreshingly tart and fierce in the one scene when Sam gets to let loose on Riggan. This sort of life-vs.-theater construct certainly is a toybox for actors, just as it was in the far more challenging Synecdoche, New York.
Keaton is getting the kind of surprised acclaim that reminds me of when everyone fell backwards over Bill Murray’s work in Rushmore, as if Murray had never been good or serious in anything before then. Same with Keaton. Make no mistake, he’s terrific here, bitterly melancholic and gnarled and human, just as he’s been terrific all along. I do hope Keaton gets the comeback out of this that Murray did (though with Murray it helped that he had Wes Anderson stubbornly casting him over and over until even the densest viewer had to admit that Murray was more than a ghostbuster). Keaton “gives us range,” to quote an actorism that pops up twice in the film. The movie doesn’t have an enormous lot going on under the hood — González Iñárritu and his writing confederates aren’t Charlie Kaufman. It’s hilarious, though, that this weird, often bleak meta-whatsit might be the closest González Iñárritu can come to escapism.