Birdman (subtitled Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is an ensemble film about theater life that occasionally takes time away from its dramatic/comedic narrative to skewer the pop culture sensibilities that have given rise to the so-called "modern blockbuster." Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the film occasionally ventures into Spike Jonze territory, making the viewer uncertain whether certain bizarre interludes are depictions of the main character's mental instability or actual events. The movie is punctuated by comedy that at times verges on slapstick but there's an underlying anger in evidence - anger at the popular mindset that allows movies like Transformers to flourish while artistic endeavors fail.
At the focal point of Birdman is aging actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Twenty years ago, he was a household name as the star of the mega-successful Birdman superhero franchise. After the second sequel, however, he turned his attention to other things, none of which were successful. Now, in an attempt to prove he can do something other than Birdman, he has adapted a Raymond Carver short story into a play that's in previews for a Broadway opening. In addition to being the writer, Riggan is also the director and star. As opening day approaches, he is understandably nervous. His cast consists of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a genuine talent with a deserved reputation for upstaging directors; his old friend Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is realizing a lifelong dream of appearing in a Broadway production; and his lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is disappointed about a false pregnancy. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), recently out of rehab, is hanging around backstage and his best friend/manager, Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), is trying to hold everything together. Meanwhile, the vultures - in the person of the influential New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) - are circling.
One of the most notable aspects of Birdman, for good or ill, is the manner in which Inarritu, a notoriously unconventional director whose previous endeavors include 21 Grams and Babel, has chosen to make the movie. With the aid of digital editing to erase the seams, Birdman appears to have been filmed in a single, unbroken take (excepting a short prologue and epilogue). This is partially illusion but the actors have spoken about having to recite page after page of dialogue while hitting their marks so the stylistic conceit has its roots in reality. Although this is a unique approach (especially in an era when long takes have become increasingly rare, replaced by rapid-fire ADD editing) and emphasizes the "theatrical" elements of the narrative, one could ask the legitimate question of whether it becomes a distraction. Does the style become so cumbersome that it detracts from the narrative? There are instances when I would argue that the answer is "yes." Consider, for example, the visual contortions when the camera has to navigate corridors in order to follow a character or when there's a time lapse to indicate the passage of time.
Inarritu unquestionably has an ax to grind and he has honed the edge. By contrasting theater with cinema, he is able to posit that the former represents "art" while the latter is overcome by crass commercialism. He has a little fun with this concept - there's a scene in which he indulges himself by trying his hand at a little Michael Bay-style mayhem. (This, by the way, is the movie's most logistically challenging sequence - presenting an alien/monster attack without cutting.) He uses the fictional Birdman as a stand-for Batman, the role Michael Keaton played until 1992 (the year Riggan quit the Birdman franchise). And, in addition to Keaton, he employs two actors who have had major roles in superhero franchises (Edward Norton, who played the title role in The Incredible Hulk, and Emma Stone, Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel).
The performances are uniformly excellent. This is the best work Michael Keaton has done in years. Edward Norton is in fine form in a role that allows him to poke fun at his own reputation while simultaneously creating a new and memorable character. His portrayal of Mike Shiner is riveting. Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts all contribute. Lindsay Duncan has a small but memorable part as an acerbic theater critic - it's hard to decide based on this portrayal how Inarritu feels about the profession, although it's clear he believes critics wield too much influence for the effort they put forth. (This may have once been true but, especially in the internet era, could be disputed today.)
There are times when the dialogue in Birdman verges on the pretentious but the quality of acting covers some flaws and the overall storyline is so compelling that it's easy to forgive some of the movie's excesses. The film also includes its share of laugh-out-loud moments - Michael Keaton navigating Times Square in his underwear comes to mind. The girl/girl kiss seems gratuitous but I'm not going to complain. Overall, Birdman offers two hours of thought-provoking entertainment. For those who have grown weary of the multiplex blockbuster culture, it's refreshing to have a filmmaker join the choir. And, in an era when far too many directors play it safe, Inarritu's penchant for the quirky and outrageous offers a welcome change-of-pace, even if it doesn't always work. Birdman won't find many adherents among the Transformers-loving crowd but, for the rest of us, it says a lot of things worth hearing.