There’s an almost uncomfortable intimacy in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
The film is designed to look like it has been shot in one, long continuous take (it wasn’t, but it’s still a breathtaking technical feat). It’s like we’re eavesdropping, but in the same room, right smack dab in the midst of the action.
And there is action, even though it wouldn’t sound like it in a movie about putting on a play that rarely leaves its theater setting or dressing rooms. Nothing blows up, but everything is combustible, from the personalities to the situations to the desperation that hangs in the air like cigarette smoke.
The film, masterfully directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams,” “Biutiful”), is part dark comedy, part profound drama, part fantasy. But it’s all a daring, imaginative ride.
And it’s driven by a virtuoso performance by Michael Keaton, who at once makes us dismiss him as a washed-up has-been who squandered away all his chances while also making us root for him as the underdog to succeed.
Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an actor whose claim to fame was starring in three movies as the comic book character “Birdman” (Keaton himself starred in the two “Batman” films directed by Tim Burton, coincidentally). This made him a wealthy star, but after he refused to do the fourth “Birdman” film, his career plummeted.
Some 20 years later, he now is trying to re-invent himself on Broadway by directing, writing and starring in a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
The play is being produced by Riggan’s loyal best friend, Jake (an underused Zach Galifianakis), who is the real hero of the show behind the scenes. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough star as the hopelessly insecure female leads, while Edward Norton plays Mike, a last-minute addition to the cast who proves to be conceited, unruly and back-stabbing.
Also moping around the place is Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who works as Riggan’s assistant but hates every minute of it.
The clock ticks as the play nears opening night, and as new troubles arise every step of the way, particularly from a snooty New York Times critic.
The film is darkly comic, but it’s also surreal. We’re left at times guessing what’s really happening and what is just in Riggan’s head, as he feels his control slipping. An unseen voice talks to him and eggs him on, like a little devil sitting on his shoulder. It’s more than his conscience, though, it’s his confidence.
Inarritu’s direction is technically magnificent, but it also allows for an acting showcase. And he guides the entire cast to superb performances — just about everyone gets a chance to shine.
Look for Keaton, Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar for last year’s “Gravity”), in particular, to attract Oscar attention.
But what overshadows all that dazzling work are the film’s meditations on our lives as flawed beings. Our obsession with stardom, our need to be loved, our yearning for forgiveness. And our desire to believe in something more.
That is “Birdman’s” greatest power of all.
‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’
Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Directed by: Alejandro G. Inarritu