During one lively scene in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu's unclassifiably nutty showbiz satire "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," someone labels a dangerous form of theatrical performance "super-realism," which is the best word to explain the attraction of this utterly unpredictable movie. Starring Michael Keaton as an aging actor attempting to reclaim his flagging celebrity (sound familiar?), Iñarritu's screenplay and restless formalism at once convey aspects of real life and depart from them in dramatic fashion.
Predominantly shot in a simulated long-take set at the Broadway theater where Keaton's character attempts to stage a new play, "Birdman" creates the illusion that it takes place in real time. But with its relentless pace and bizarre circumstances, it hovers in an off-kilter state, leaving open the suggestion that the entire thing may take place within its protagonist's head. Considering that he's got a lot on his mind, "Birdman" is a sensory overload that exists in a class by itself.
Iñarritu's camera first captures his desperate anti-hero, Riggan Thomson (Keaton), floating in a lotus pose in his underpants. Alone in his dressing room, the poster of the titular superhero that gave him his fame lurking nearby, Riggan is instantly positioned in a world where anything can happen. Whether he actually possesses psychic abilities or has already gone nuts remains an open question that the movie doesn't pause long for us to ponder: Zipping onstage to rehearse an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," Riggan faces the challenge of finding a new cast member when one of the other leads is abruptly incapacitated. Then we're back to watching Riggan in his dressing room, moving objects around with his mind, and suddenly the gimmick makes sense: It's a natural embellishment on his desire to control everything around him even as his universe threatens to collapse.
Over the course of the next two hours, Riggan attempts to find a new creative outlet in Carver's text even as the greater dramas of his real-life — a possibly pregnant co-star (Andrea Risborough) and a drug-addled daughter (Emma Stone) chief among them — loom more prominently. The disconnect from a single, focused text is a uniquely modern concept, and one that threatens to overwhelm Riggan at every turn. "This isn't the nineties anymore," someone tells him. "Birdman" makes this point in countless innovative ways, though one particularly noteworthy bit finds his daughter brandishing a smartphone in front of her father and displaying a viral video while announcing, "This is power." In essence, civilization has developed beyond his comprehension no matter how hard he tries to grab hold of it.
Iñarritu explores the surreal nature of Riggan's environment with ceaseless motion. As he did with "Gravity," cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki forges new ground with his seamless use of Steadicam, which frequently performs the impossible: The camera wanders from backstage to the city streets and glides to impossible heights in a ballet of constant movement. Days pass by and the story covers a lot of ground, but Riggan's universe never sits still.
The Extremes of Performance
Keaton — wrinkled, greying and bubbling with passion at every turn — rises to the challenge with fascinating determination on par with his character. The role feels heavy and veers dangerously close to becoming heavy-handed, but it also acknowledges that very challenge. Riggan meets his match when he casts obnoxious egomaniac Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in the play, regularly coping with the actor's freewheeling willingness to screw things up onstage at every moment.
Norton, in his most enjoyably high-spirited turn since "Fight Club," relishes the opportunity to play the smarmy foe to Keaton's scowling demeanor. A battle between the two men, as Keaton whips Norton with a rolled-up New York Times featuring coverage of the play, oscillates between silly and energizing in one fell swoop. It might be the best physical achievement in both of their careers.
But Norton's wily temperament is matched by Stone, as Riggan's cynical daughter, who delivers a darker role than anything suggested in her earlier roles. Even Zach Galifianakis, as Riggan's hyperactive producer and best friend, manages to each beyond his goofy standards with a zany performance closer in form to Jeremy Piven's fast-talking agent on "Entourage."
A Worthy Target
Like that show, "Birdman" puts the entertainment industry in its crosshairs, but takes a more incisive, trigger-happy approach, gleefully thumbing its nose at mainstream American cinema.
Within the opening minutes, Iñarritu's script name-drops Michael Fassbender, Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner in the context of superhero franchise mania; later, Keaton glares in the mirror as the gruff voice of the costumed avenger he played decades earlier intones, "We're the real thing. We handed these posers the keys to the kingdom." His ex-wife assails him for "that ridiculous comedy you did with Goldie Hawn." His daughter puts it bluntly: "You aren't doing this for the sake of art." A steely-eyed critic at the local watering hole (Lindsay Duncan) says he's "a celebrity, not an actor." At every turn, Riggan is trapped by industrial forces that have moved on without him.
While the number of cheeky references to real-life actors and events pile up to an extreme degree, the exaggerated feel fits this canny satire, which is firmly rooted in the present. In a frantic monologue, Riggan's daughter assails her dad's old-school sensibilities: "You don't even have a Facebook page!" she exclaims. "It's like you don't exist." The looming threat of social media forms a compelling juxtaposition with the free-flowing camerawork: Riggan fights to keep track of his life even as everything around him grows increasingly fragmented.
With so much spirited dialogue and self-referential qualities, "Birdman" often reeks of overly fancy screenwriting trickery. During one particularly vicious showdown with the critic committed to taking him down — a role that Duncan plays with demonic enthusiasm — Riggan offers a searing riposte to bad reviews ("You're just labeling everything"); it's not hard to imagine Iñarritu wrote the bit for his own sneaky shot at catharsis. But the scene works, like many others, due to the impression that we're several steps removed from the reality of Riggan's experiences. As the actor battles to uncover artistic integrity, the movie functions as a commentary on its own melodramatic excesses. There's meta and then there's "Birdman," which takes meta to a new level.
A Better Direction For All
"Birdman" is especially gratifying in contrast to the humorless, mopey dramas that Iñarritu has made in the past — "Biutiful," "Babel," "21 Grams" — suffer from overwrought gravitas, practically begging audiences to experience the emotions they offer up. "Birdman" assails that very notion: In a cynical age, why bother to feel anything? And as a response, it offers the rawest performance in Keaton's career, and puts the last few decades of his projects in a bracing new context.
As Birdman whispers in Riggan's ear, the lure of the commercial realm takes on a demonic presence that eventually erupts in startling CGI mayhem during the closing act. Whether or not Keaton himself experiences the temptations of the blockbuster arena in similar fashion, "Birdman" suggests the conundrum stems from deep-seated anxieties. Iñarritu underscores Riggan's paranoid state with a jazzy drum solo, sometimes even revealing the drummer in unexpected places, which strengthens the likelihood that anything can happen. Moment to moment, "Birdman" manages to shift gears, its roaming camera revealing new surprises as it glides along. That degree of unpredictability provides it with the ultimate response to the sea of formulaic mediocrities at the center of its critique.
Above all else, "Birdman" derives its allure from the tension between fluid camerawork and invented moments. In an age defined by virtual connectivity and splintered communication, the mystery of how to obtain meaningful experiences is greater than ever. "Is this for real or are you filming me?" Riggan says at one point. The degree of uncertainty in that question is the foundation of the movie's unique appeal.
"Birdman" opened the Venice Film Festival and screened over the weekend in Telluride. It screens next month at the New York Film Festival and opens nationwide on October 17.