Hubristic and humble and heartfelt and hotheaded, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is a phenomenal film. The feverishly anticipated (not least by us) movie from Alejandro González Iñárritu blasted through its Venice premiere (it’s the opening film) in a giddy, gonzo rush —so exciting, so moment-to-moment enjoyable that to expect profundity would be greedy. And yet it delivers on that level as well; the film is as thoughtful and smart as it is infectiously absurd. And that’s perhaps the biggest surprise of an endlessly surprising, inventive movie: whatever the sum of its parts, like how it launches and completes the “Keatonnaissance” in one fell swoop, or the incredible camerawork that is imperceptibly stitched together into (mostly) one long, seemingly cutless take, “Birdman” adds up to more. It’s borderline miraculous.
Nothing in Iñárritu’s back catalogue can prepare you for this new direction. Many an auteur has switched genre and mood; seldom have we seen such a total change of sensibility. If it resembles any film at all, it’s probably Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, NY” but with a lighter heart and a sly grin. Because here, Iñárritu, who in the past has been nothing if not sincere to the point of self-seriousness, suddenly shows us not just his anarchic, uproarious, mischievous sense of humor, but an almost impish delight in the further possibilities of a medium he’d already mastered. Far from resting on his laurels, Iñárritu has, to echo one of the film’s central tenets, risked something. And that risk pays off with interest: we’re trying to avoid the hyperbolic “redefining the language of cinema”-type comment, but the film’s bravura, impeccably achieved form has such a gravitational effect that it becomes hard to remember that there was ever another way to tell a story.
The plot is an endlessly unfurling pleasure that you need to discover for yourselves, but follows an ex-movie star, Riggan Thomas (welcome back, Michael Keaton!) who is trying to mount a self-penned theatrical adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. Occasionally haunted by the voice of his most famous role, Birdman, functioning as a malevolent alter ego personifying all of Riggan’s self-doubt and fear, Riggan is also telekinetic. Or he’s under the illusion that he can move objects without touching them —throughout, the film does a little dance of ambivalence around what’s real and what imagined. The quartet of actors in the play (Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough) rehearse, bicker, support each other and come to blows, and orbiting them at a sardonic distance are Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone), his best friend/manager/producer (Zach Galifianakis) and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan). With disasters self-made and external dogging each of the previews, Riggan unravels ever further, building up to opening night when the play will be made or broken by a review from Lindsay Duncan’s all-powerful New York Times critic.
Keaton is superb throughout to the point that it’s difficult to work out if the film derives its off-kilter energy and arch self-awareness from him or vice versa, as he unerringly negotiates the various aspects of his multifaceted role (not least as a proxy for Iñárritu himself). But the entire cast is outstanding, delivering a brilliantly-written script (by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr and Armando Bo) that generously gives each actor at least one and often several killer moments. Indeed, the first half of the film almost belongs to Norton, whose hyper-driven and deeply method Mike Shiner is given many an excoriating monologue on the nature of acting, theater vs. Hollywood (“Birdman” is mercilessly critical of pop culture, while also ravenously feeding off it), truth in performance, and in one surprisingly moving juncture on a rooftop with Emma Stone, aging and insecurity. Stone is maybe the best she’s ever been, delivering a snarling monologue at one point that is basically a manifesto for the modern millennial, and then tempering it with a tiny beat at the end that kinda deserves an Oscar all by itself. Riseborough and Watts have smaller roles, but a brilliant scene together gives them depth and life and color outside their screen time, and if Ryan gives the film a lot of its heart as Riggan’s loving ex-wife (the platonic opposite of the shrewish ex), then Lindsay Duncan lends it a fair share of its bite in a couple of brilliantly venomous exchanges (critics, and the nature of criticism also come in for some uncomfortably pointed, hilarious jibes).
But if there is an MVP here aside from Iñárritu, it has to be DP Emmanuel Lubezki. His camerawork is simply dazzling (and often dazzled, wheeling up into the bright sky or wandering past stage lights), and the decision to have the vast majority of the film play out as one continuous shot is not just a show-off move but absolutely vital to the film’s themes. In fact, we’re struggling to recall a more perfect marriage of form and content: As much as the camera glides silkily and occasionally soars, the cumulative effect of the building momentum feels almost like a tumble down a rabbit hole, like falling, and whether Riggan will fly or fall is the central question of the film.
Brilliantly scored (by Antonio Sanchez) to an insistent, percussive drumbeat (that itself gets a witty, Godardian reveal deep into the film) and peppered with acerbic asides and belly laughs, the greatest wonder of the film is that for all its wry, surreal meta-textuality, it should gradually build to something so thought-provoking and genuinely human. Almost inevitably, at one point a side character quotes Macbeth’s line about life being “but a tale told by an idiot,” but as full as “Birdman” is of sound and fury (and joy and jokes), it signifies a great deal, largely about the painful, thrilling and dangerous prospect of rebirth. Which is appropriate, because with “Birdman,” Iñárritu, Keaton, and our own faith in the limitless possibilities of cinema, are reborn. [A]