A meteor's spectacular flameout opens Birdman or (the enigmatic subtitle, if you prefer). The space boulder has nothing on Riggan Thomson, whose movie career spiral after superhero stardom is a lot like Michael Keaton's, who is playing him here, in a stroke of meta genius.
What goes down must come up, right? For Riggan, a jury of two — himself and that taunting voice in his head — is still out. For Keaton, it's solidly affirmed by the performance of his career and perhaps this year, a naked portrait of ego, desperation and self-obsession.
Riggan is banking on an unlikely Broadway project, a lean adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, hardly competition for the surrounding jukebox musicals, movie retreads and war horses. The only reason it's opening is because Riggan poured all his money into it.
A last-minute disaster brings on a temperamental replacement, a drama critic sharpens her pen and the stage is set for typical in-the-wings farce. But "typical" is the last word anyone will use to describe what director Alejandro G. Iñárritu does with that setup.
Birdman is an astonishing technical feat, unfolding with the illusion of a single, nearly 2-hour take, with Emmanuel Lubezki's camera prowling through St. James Theater crannies and Times Square crowds. A couple of edits for transition are obvious but the overall effect is magical.
Iñárritu envisioned this to get inside Riggan's head, to show his psychotic fantasies and perceptions of anyone he's depending on, which is everyone he meets. In his most pathetic moments it's that drama critic, who should be the least of his worries. In his most fantastic, it's Birdman himself, doubting every step of the way.
Riggan's mood swings and distractions encourage Keaton's full range as an actor, transitioning from smug-funny to glib-vicious to heartbreaking and back, often in a single exchange. The parallel of Keaton's Batman days and Riggan's fictional Birdman flicks gives the role a confessional feel though it surely isn't. Keaton exposes raw, razored contempt for celebrity and himself, or at least Riggan, for wanting it back.
Iñárritu and a trio of co-writers offer the expected backstage characters: Riggan's agent (Zach Galifianakis) who can't even pronounce Martin Scorsese's name, his star Lesley (Naomi Watts), nervous about her Broadway debut, and Mike (a superb Edward Norton), a genuine movie star stepping in and taking over. Riggan's ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and current lover (Andrea Riseborough) are there but like everyone in Birdman, the style and writing elevate the roles then the actors lift that.
None more so than Emma Stone, whose turn as Riggan's daughter, Sam, is the one-foot grounding Iñárritu's movie needs. Sam is today's version of the audience her father used to please, obsessed with social media he shuns, a sign of his obscurity. Stone and Keaton strike emotional tones that should play well in award show clips.
Everything about Birdman is a bold cinematic stretch, from its snare-jazz soundtrack to a climax regrettably stretched too far. The line between Iñárritu's genius and Riggan's madness gets crossed once too many, but no matter. Birdman has 99 virtues and ignorance isn't one.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.