“Birdman” is a tour de force, a heady mix of dark comedy and psychic meltdown with energy vibrating from every frame.
Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”), star Michael Keaton (in a bravura performance) and a terrific supporting cast deliver a movie unlike anything we’ve seen before.
If the film, full name: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” isn’t as deep as it thinks it is, there’s no arguing with the jaw-dropping creativity on display — technical, dramatic and thespian.
The setup: One-time movie box office champ Riggan Thomson (Keaton) — who earned worldwide fame portraying a feathered superhero called Birdman — has come to Broadway to write, direct and star in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Riggan has personally financed the production in hopes of restarting his moribund career (“I’m the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question”) and affirm his artistic credentials.
Turns out his sanity is on the line as well.
Among the characters drifting in and out of the rehearsals at New York’s St. James Theatre are Riggan’s long-estranged daughter (Emma Stone), just out of rehab and serving as her father’s personal assistant; his lawyer-manager (Zach Galifianakis), who is desperately juggling dwindling production funds; an arrogant actor (Edward Norton) who steps in when a cast member is injured by a falling light; and two actresses (Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough), the second possibly pregnant with Riggan’s child.
As the players struggle through several preview performances where something invariably goes spectacularly wrong, there’s plenty of backstage intrigue — brawling, furniture smashing, seduction, backbiting — all of it captured in what appears to be one long, uninterrupted shot.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera (his work was featured in “Gravity” and “Children of Men”) is as much a star as any of the cast members. It stalks characters through the labyrinthine bowels of the old theater — dressing rooms, dank, narrow hallways, prop and costume rooms, the stage itself — and occasionally out into the street or up to the roof, always moving, circling, observing.
Common sense tells us that the film is composed of many long takes seamlessly fitted together, but after a while we stop looking for cuts and simply accept that we’re getting a god’s-eye (or perhaps a ghost’s-eye) view of the proceedings.
(By the way, how is it that the camera is never reflected in the many mirrors that line the dressing room walls?)
Lacking conventional editing — which plays a huge role in setting rhythm and dramatic tone — “Birdman” compensates with camera movement, incessant jazz drumming on the soundtrack, and the exquisitely crafted and delivered dialogue. We get the illusion of a sort of cosmic play performed in real time.
The film is often a bitterly funny send-up of theatrical pretensions. Norton’s method-y actor insists on drinking real gin onstage, claiming that “Carver left part of his liver on the table every time he wrote.”
And there’s a delicious moment when Watts’ actress laments her poor choices in men and wonders, “Why don’t I have any self-respect?”
A colleague’s instantaneous answer: “You’re an actress, honey.”
There’s even a slapsticky sequence in which Riggan, taking a smoke break, is accidentally locked out of the stage door, and to get to the theater’s front entrance must circumnavigate the entire block, including a stroll through a packed Times Square. Thing is, he’s wearing only black socks and tightie whities.
As if all this weren’t diversion enough, Riggan is tormented by an inner voice — his Birdman character — who dishes insults and abuse. The actor believes himself to be endowed with supernatural powers. He can move objects with his mind and, eventually, will himself to fly.
And then there’s the parlor game of figuring out how much of the fictional former Birdman has been plucked from the real life of former “Batman” star Keaton.
“Birdman” is so breathlessly inventive that it takes a while for us to realize that it’s more an intellectual experience than an emotional one. Most of these characters are self-absorbed and/or damaged (as the daughter, Stone delivers a hair-raising rant about Riggan’s shortcomings as a father), and there’s not a whole lot of warmth on display.
The sole exception is Amy Ryan, who in two key scenes as Riggan’s ex gives an empathetic performance that provides a bit of heart to accompany all that tormented cerebration.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Palace and Studio 30.)
Rated R | Time: 1:59
“Birdman” has a 15-2 chance of winning the best-picture Academy Award, according to GoldDerby.com, a website that calculates odds based on user predictions. That puts it third, behind Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age saga “Boyhood” and Angelina Jolie’s World War II tale “Unbroken,” which doesn’t arrive until Christmas.
Rounding out the top five: Another WWII drama, “The Imitation Game,” about code-crackers (no KC date), and the space odyssey “Interstellar,” opening next week.
| The Star