Every now and again a movie comes along that is so artfully weird, so unconventional in its approach and ethos, that it defies description and earns a recommend even though it isn’t completely successful in reaching its loft goals. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” the new film from “Babel” director Alejandro González Iñárritu, is that movie.
In what may be the most meta casting coup of the year Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former movie star whose fame floundered when he left the “Birdman” franchise of super hero movies. Twenty years later with his money running out, he makes a comeback bid in the form of a Broadway show based on a Raymond Carver novel. Surrounded by family—daughter Sam (Emma Stone)—friends—BFF Brandon (Zach Galifianakis)—intense actors—played by Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts—and a nasty theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who resents movie star Riggins for taking up space in a theatre that could have been used for art, he fights to reestablish himself as a serious actor.
“Birdman” could have been a stunt film. The casting of “Batman” star Keaton as a washed up former superhero is inspired but mostly because he hands in a performance that rides the line between comedic and pathos. “I’m the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question,” he says.
It doesn’t feel like stunt casting because Keaton plays the truth of the situation and not just the situation. His Riggins is obnoxious, self-absorbed and yet earnest in his desire to create great art. Keaton plays it all, wallowing in a stew of self-pity—he says he looks like “a turkey with leukemia.”—and ego while never once trying to appeal to the audience’s good graces. It’s a bravura performance that is the beating heart of this strange beast.
The supporting actors also impress. As an extreme method actor with an uncompromising attitude toward acting and fame—“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” he says—the movie gives Ed Norton the most interesting and challenging part he’s had in years, and Watts is a suitably seething mass of insecurity and sexuality.
Also dazzling is the movie’s style. Filmed to look like one continuous steady-can shot, “Birdman” is as much a technical feat as it is an artistic one. Again, what could have been a stunt turns into a visual rollercoaster that propels the action forward constantly while creating a unique and stylish palette for the story.
But it doesn’t all work. Some of the insight is a bit too on the nose—“You’re no actor. You’re a celebrity.”—and labors to hammer home it’s points. The spiteful theatre critic becomes a caricature of New York intellectuals, scornful of Riggin’s accomplishments in Hollywood. ”You measure your worth in weekends,” she sneers, “and give one another awards for cartoons.” As fiery as that scene is, it feels a little too easy.
That is a small quibble, however, in a movie that takes so many chances and lampoons celebrity culture by having a reporter ask Riggins, “Is it true you have been injecting yourself with seaman from baby pigs?”