Michael Keaton literally and figuratively rises to the occasion in Birdman¸or The Unexpected Value of Ignorance. The opening indeed finds his character, an aged actor who once played a popular superhero who today is overlooked by time and modern emphera, hovering above the ground while apparently meditating.
That begins a spellbinding, self-relfective and hilarious story across a few days in the life of Riggan Thomson as he sets to regain fame and assert himself has a legitimate creative mind. While facing off against his family, critics, colleagues, as well internal demons of his past – the voice of his iconic character Birdman, who coincidentally sounds a bit like Batman – Riggan is attempting to open a Broadway play that he is adapting, directing, and starring to show his worth.
It is a movie about a story about a play, a film that stars an actor who was once played a superhero decades ago who is now getting a leading role….playing an actor who once played a popular superhero who is now getting a leading role; see what they did there?
Birdman though isn’t just some clever, cheeky conceit; it’s a fully-fleshed out, beautifully-realized feature that is virtually completely seamless. Until the epilogue, the camera never cuts, flowing from scene to scene as the frequent jazz score plays in the background, keeping the viewer gripped at all times. The backstage of this Broadway theatre and the surrounding streets and rooftops become our setting as Riggan and his coterie prepare for opening night.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu on a script he co-writes muses on the fleeting nature of fame, the difficultly in accepting the end, and, as the second part of the title suggests, the enjoyment that comes with naivete.
Keaton isn’t the only actor playing a role that riffs on real life. Edward Norton, a serious actor often known for serious roles, plays a famous actor who comes in to save Riggan’s production when another actor can’t perform, but he brings with him his own cocky ideas and stubborn, condescending attitude.
Zach Galifanakis is the straight-laced friend and producer trying to keep the production together, Naomi Watts is the co-star of the play and former flame of Norton, and Emma Stone is Riggan’s rehabilitating, indifferent daughter and assistant.
This funny, bizarre, and dreamlike (and stage-like) film plays out captivating minute by captivating minute, filled with outrageous laughs and potent pontifications. Riggan condemns critics, fans, and fellow actors throughout, bemoaning social media while proclaiming that too many ‘confuse love for admiration.’
It’s a transcendent piece of filmmaking backed by sharp writing and the best an ensemble cast has to offer, especially Keaton, who succeeds in showcasing his talents even if his character’s future is uncertain.