A man, sitting cross-legged in only underpants, floats in mid-air. A raspy disembodied voice says, "We don't belong in this shithole." The man is Riggan, the place is the dressing room at a New York theater, and the haranguing voice is that of "Birdman," a movie-franchise superhero played by Riggan decades ago.
Now, Riggan (Michael Keaton) is hoping to regain his mojo with a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"; he's writer, director, star and bank. But during final rehearsals things are shambolic, particularly with his method-y co-star (Edward Norton, being hilarious method-y); his other two co-stars — Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough — aren't happy; nor are his daughter (Emma Stone) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan). It might actually take a superhero to get this careening project on track.
Riggan's existential crises form the heart of Birdman, (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the darkly funny, oddball film from Alejandro González Iñárritu. Birdman is a kinetic mash-up of backstage comedy, character study, fantasy, domestic melodrama, an homage to art and artists, and a freewheeling critique of all of the above, plus jabs at Hollywood, superheroes, audiences and critics.
Like the actor he portrays here, Keaton also walked away from a caped-superhero franchise, and never again achieved the same level of stardom. Viewers of a certain age will factor this in as another of the film's meta-layers and in-jokes.
Iñárritu (Amores Perros) has shown a penchant for nonlinear narratives. In contrast, Birdman unfolds in linear chunks of real time, supported by continuous shots that run up and down stairs, in and out of dressing rooms, on stage and out the fire-exit door. Characters intersect with these long shots in a seemingly chaotic fashion that is, in execution, rigid choreography. (The all-drumming score by Antonio Sanchez adds to the fluid but rhythmic nature of the story.)
Though Birdman embraces the done-to-death travails of the misunderstood artist, it supplies a less-sympathetic counter with narcissistic echo chamber that is "Birdman," or Riggan as an entitled alpha-male. "You are a movie star — you are a god," Birdman counsels. Even Riggan's self-awareness is self-serving. Thus, Birdman doesn't offer much heart, unless you're as enamored of Riggan as he is of himself. As such, opinions may vary on how the story concludes, with cynics and sentimentalists squaring off.
If it all sounds a bit pretentious, fear not: Though it's a fair criticism depending on your tolerance for self-referential art about art, Birdman is never less than entertaining — brash, funny, fast-paced and a welcome return to the A-list for Keaton.