Birdman' gives Michael Keaton overdue chance to soar

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu serves up showbiz satire with elusive epiphany

It’s hard to count the number of masks Michael Keaton wears, both literal and metaphorical, in the dizzyingly ambitious new film Birdman. The actor plays Riggan Thompson, a movie star on the downhill slope since his hit superhero franchise Birdman of decades earlier. He stakes his credibility and financial security on his Broadway debut, writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of famed author Raymond Carver.

The film shows us Keaton as Riggan, Keaton as one of Carver’s characters and even Keaton peering through a Birdman cowl on movie posters. Keaton clearly is doing more than a little riffing on his own career as the one-time star of the Batman movies banished from the A-list. Keaton rises to the challenge of Birdman’s complexity with a winning, welcome comeback performance. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has much bigger things on his mind that may not clip Birdman’s wings, but keep the film from soaring as high as it could.

Riggan faces pressure from all sides, not the least of which is a huge financial loss if the show fails. His daughter (Emma Stone), a recovering addict, works as his assistant and reminds him of his failures as a father. His co-star and girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant. When another actor is injured, he finds a replacement in brilliant, beloved method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who turns out to be the loosest of loose cannons and constantly throws the production into disarray.

Birdman serves as a sharp showbiz satire, particularly in its critique of blockbuster superhero films: Riggan settles on Mike partly because every other actor he names is playing a caped crusader. The “apocalyptic pornography” of Hollywood heroics finds the best possible counterpoint in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a beloved piece of literary minimalism that here threatens to bring out some actors’ bad instincts.

While characters, particularly Mike, talk about the authenticity of stage acting, Iñárritu clearly loves screen technology. As in his work with Gravity, cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki creates the impression of a single uninterrupted shot — albeit one that leaps forward by hours at a time through clever cuts and dissolves. The hand-held camera work and long takes simulates pre-show jitters and possibly gives Keaton and company an analog to stage acting, which has no edits. When an undressed Riggan locks himself out of the theater and must walk through Times Square in his tighty-whiteys, it’s a snappy metaphor for the exposure a movie star can feel.

All of those elements would offer enough for a substantial, awards-friendly feature, but Iñárritu and his three co-writers have even more things on their mind, including Riggan’s suspicion that he has actual superpowers. The film’s subtitle The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, like the incessant jazz drum soundtrack, seems to signal an epiphany of mind-blowing insight is just around the corner, but it remains elusive. It’s like someone making a show of clearing his throat, without having much to say. Birdman proves comparable to the formative films of Paul Thomas Anderson, which use stellar camerawork to unify big, aria-like moments of screen acting and conceal thematic hollowness.

Fortunately, Birdman has Keaton at its center, and the actor really gets inside Riggan’s head, conveying the multiple securities that compete to sabotage himself. Keaton can still tap the live-wire energy of his early comedies, but now also has found a richer screen presence. If Birdman sometimes struggles to defy gravity, Keaton has definitely discovered his own gravitas.

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