“Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” is the last caped superhero movie you will ever need to see. Serious and silly, self-aware and ironic, it’s the movie that questions stardom, fame and celebrity, built around a role Michael Keaton had to become a has-been to play.
Keaton is Riggin Thomson, who was the big screen’s “Birdman” twenty years ago. Balding and wrinkled, his goatee flecked with grey, he’s thrown everything he has into one last shot at fame.
His vehicle? A self-adapted, produced and directed Broadway production of a Raymond Carver story fragment, which he will also star in.
He really needs “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love?” to hit. And not just because of what his junkie daughter turned personal assistant (Emma Stone) says.
“You don’t matter. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
Daughter Sam’s isn’t the only voice Riggin is listening to. There’s his lawyer-producer (Zach Galifianakis), the one who warns him about how much this vanity project is costing. And there’s the voice in his head, a cracked corner of his conscience that sounds like Keaton in his Dark Knight growl.
“Gravity doesn’t even APPLY to you” the voice says. Because Riggin is sure he has telekinetic powers. He can levitate — which is how we’re introduced to him, in his tidy whities in his dressing room, floating in a lotus position. In a comic book universe, Riggin would be just another credible “Incredible,” the supernatural accepted as natural. In the real world, he’s just a guy who surrendered his fame to that “Tin Suit wearing” fraud, Robert Downey Jr., and others.
“Birdman” co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) has created an essay in the madness of celebrity. Riggin is caught up in it, as indeed it seemed Keaton himself once was. Delusions of omnipotence linger in that crazy voice in his head. But he’s lost the arrogance, the self-important sense of “artist” and “cool” that he wore at the height of his fame.
Yeah, I’m talking about both Riggin and the guy playing him. Iñárritu and his co-writers have endless fun riffing on Keaton’s real-life diva rep.
And that’s just for starters. Riggin’s on-stage supporting cast, played by Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough, isn’t complete until Broadway vet Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is brought in at the last minute. Keaton has NOTHING on Norton when it comes to “difficult” reputation.
In one moment, Mike is shocking Riggin by already having the script memorized the minute he arrives. The second moment, he’s editing it. Ask anybody who’s worked with Norton if that happens. Like us, Riggin also realizes this editing is instantly improving the show.
But Mike is a raving egomaniac and an unstable jerk. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but if you’re not tickled by Norton’s bipolar “Method Acting” explosions, then you’re missing the joke. Maybe he never said “theater” as if he owns it, or “This is MY town” about New York and Broadway. But like a withering confrontation Riggin has with a New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan of “About Time”), it sounds so right.
Iñárritu shoots the film like Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” a swooping, seamless series of long, highly choreographed takes which move us from dressing room to rooftop to backstage and then onstage. The play they’re doing doesn’t seem like much, but being Carver (Altman directed “Short Cuts” from Carver stories) it promises emotional explosions.
Norton has great fun with his reputation, Stone is fearsome as a spoiled rich girl happiest playing the angry victim. Watts is properly needy, and Riseborough (“Oblivion”) almost steals the movie with her promiscuous, mercurial Broadway baby turn. Galifianakis has never played a more human character, which considering he’s playing a lawyer turned Broadway producer, is saying something.
But the camera stays on Keaton, hand-held close-ups taking us into the madness, the world famous icon he was, the broken but not quite humbled Norma Desmond he has become.
In this riveting, hilarious, intimate yet larger than life performance, he never needs to say “I used to be BIG.” It’s in his “Birdman” eyes, first scene to last.
(Read Roger Moore’s conversation with Michael Keaton about “Birdman” HERE)
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis
Credits: Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo . A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:59