By Eleanor Ringel Cater
As its parenthetical subtitle implies, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” wraps a cautionary tale inside its pitch-black comedy. Be careful what you wish for — especially if it involves Hollywood or Broadway.
Sometime in the last century, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) seemed to have everything he could wish for. His movie career took flight — financially and otherwise — when he found a fine feathered franchise built around a superhero named Birdman (any resemblance to Keaton’s two-time turn as Tim Burton’s Batman is purely coincidentally on purpose).
The role made him rich, famous and, creatively speaking, a joke. Even in Hollywood, a place not generally known for creativity, respectable or otherwise.
However, like the protagonist of a Shakespearean tragedy, Riggan is determined to defy Fate and set things right. To that end, he is producing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk Abut When We Talk About Love.”
Those whom the Gods would destroy they first infect with a yen for their names in lights on the Great White Way.
Riggan’s various not-so-mythical monsters include his co-star (Edward Norton), a critics’ darling known for his Brando-esque temperament; Riggan’s heroin-chic daughter (Emma Stone) who ran into “that dude from ‘American Pie’” in rehab; his anxious producer (Zack Galifianikis), who’s all too ready to roll over an play dead should Riggan so decree; an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) with whom he’s still angry for not liking him in a comedy he made with Goldie Hawn (admiration and love are not the same, she tries to explain); an even angrier theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who vows to destroy him without even bothering to see the play; an actress (Naomi Watts) who fears she’s hitched her wagon to a has-been; and, perhaps most fearsome of all, a fierce voice in his head that whispers dire warnings and dark observations in the raspy deep register Riggan used as Birdman (or Keaton as Batman).
The script bristles with comedic brio, tossing around nasty off-handed jokes about everyone from Robert Downey Jr. (How did he get away relatively scathed from Iron Man?) to Method Actors (Norton insists he only tells the truth on stage).
Hollywood megalomania takes a hit or two million, as does an older generation’s refusal to embrace the TMZ-mandated tools of celebrity. As long as he hates tweets, mocks bloggers and doesn’t have a Facebook page, Riggan may as well not exist.
So far, it is so Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”) or perhaps Mike Nichols. But here’s what makes “Birdman” soar: Along with its acidly precise view of the Actor’s Life (i.e., the Actor’s Nightmare), the film is cinematically thrilling.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have constructed the movie as a series of long camera takes. Think Martin Scorsese stalking Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco as they enter that nightclub in “Goodfellas” or Robert Altman circling a Hollywood backlot as he zeroes in Tim Robbins, pompously taking pitches in “The Player.”
It may sound like cineaste snobbery but the effect is exhilarating. Mind-altering. Head-clearing. “You mistake the noise in your head for knowledge,” Keaton’s Birdman alter ego taunts, and we understand. Exactly.
“Birdman” achieves the rare trick of being weighty and weightless. The acting ensemble is seamlessly daring; the showy cinematics are seamlessly truthful. At one point, perched on the roof of the St. James Theatre, overlooking Broadway like the melancholy angels in “Wings of Desire,” Stone and Norton engage in a flirtatious game of Truth or Dare. Which is, in a sense, what “Birdman” is all about. What is Truth, what is a Dare and what difference, really, does it make?
At this point, “Birdman” is the most daring — and best — movie of 2014.