Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams), uses magical realism, comedy, satire, and an altogether meta approach to comment on artists, their pretensions, and the evolving nature of celebrity. Cleverly using cinematic artifice to mimic the conceits of theater and a roiling, chaotic, percussive jazz score, the film is also almost an art house superhero story. I enjoyed every single hilarious, angsty, meditative moment of it.
Michael Keaton, purposefully cast with his iconic role of Batman constantly a reminder in the back of your mind, stars as Riggan Thompson, a somewhat washed up movie star desperately trying to put distance between himself and his in-universe iconic role of "Birdman." He attempts to do this by starring, writing, and directing a dramatic Broadway play. Keaton is spectacular. Acting isn't necessarily always a draw for me as a film fan but I definitely notice when great performances are given and Keaton stuns here. I've always found him to be a welcome addition to any cast and he's been relegated to middling roles for some time now. One scene that sticks out is when Riggan confronts the snooty theater critic at the bar. His fierce defense of his work and himself is just gripping. I hope this film corrects this path as he shows his chops here in a role of a lifetime that serves as a commentary on his own career in a lot of ways.
The rest of the cast do admirably, as well. Emma Stone, whose soulful eyes look like they could swallow the whole world, once again shows range in her role as Riggan's addict daughter. Ed Norton, possibly doing a meta version of himself as a driven, gifted, and sometimes difficult actor, provides a great foil to Riggan. Naomi Watts is solid in a somewhat minor role. Zach Galifianakis branches out here with a much more subtle role than what he's usually given and does fine, if unobtrusive, work.
Similar to Hitchcock's Rope, the movie is filmed in such a way as to look like it's one continuous shot. Editing tricks are used to conceal cuts and we are whisked around the byzantine conduits of the backstage area and around the streets of New York. Brian DePalma's predilection for long takes is also an obvious influence. This must have been an extremely precise shoot with timing being of the utmost importance. It really is virtuoso work with crane shots of exteriors miraculously melding into impossibly long tracking shots as we follow characters scurrying about the theater. To my mind, this also mimics the theatrical experience, as well. There are no cuts on stage (or in life), after all. This just a long way of saying the camera work is exceptional.
As for the story, it works on a basic level as it's about a guy who may or may not have superpowers, trying to inject some meaning into what he sees as a sputtering work and personal life. The way the Birdman persona is used here doubly invokes Tyler Durden and the Dark Knight. If you try to argue one way or the other about whether or not he has superpowers, though, you're missing the point. This isn't one of those types of films. While being hyper realistic in many ways, the film also has scenes that would be at home in dreamy fantasy films. It is this mesh of a commitment to high minded drama and surrealistic whimsy that gives the piece its most unique flavor. I think it might also be the most difficult to digest for the casual viewer. With regards to some of the deeper issues the film explores, it is never anything less than thoughtful, subtle, and humanistic work. There's a lot going on here but I don't want to devolve into any of the pretensions that the film itself skewers. Look a little deeper and I'm sure you'll find something to enjoy.