You will see funnier movies than “Birdman” this year. You’ll probably see more dramatic movies. You may even see weirder movies. (“Tusk” comes to mind.) But you won’t see an angrier film than this one – which also manages to be funny, dramatic, audacious and fascinating most of the time.
It ought to end in three places before it does. Like most work directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (who has abbreviated the “Gonzalez”), it pushes on restlessly past near-perfection to a conclusion that defies belief, let alone comprehension. But before that, it blasts targets in fine satiric style.
Who knew Iñárritu had so much disgust in him? He savages superhero films that dominate the marketplace with “apocalyptic porn.” He mocks pretentious theater actors who believe they alone hold the key to artistic truth. He vilifies the press, every member of whom is moronic, sycophantic, dishonest or otherwise contemptible. He dismisses the Twitter-Facebook generation for trying to capture experiences in a few characters or a blurry video.
Iñárritu and his co-writers (Nicolás Giacabone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) have sympathy mainly for Riggan Thomson, an actor in his 60s who was famous long ago as the comic-book hero “Birdman.” Thomson has wasted his marriage to a supportive woman (Amy Ryan), alienated a daughter whose addictions sent her to rehab (Emma Stone) and bullied his best friend (Zach Galifianakis) into bankrolling a Broadway show that will let Thomson write, direct and star. But he pushes forward in a stubborn, honorable attempt to do something of artistic value and regain his self-respect.
Michael Keaton plays Thomson. Draw your own conclusions about parallels between actor and character, but Iñárritu reinforces them: Thomson last wore the Birdman suit in 1992, the year Keaton last played Batman. (On the other hand, Keaton has never appeared on Broadway. Except for rare film appearances and voice-over work, he seems to have spent most of the last 12 years on his ranch.)
Keaton reminds us what a fine actor he could always be. Thomson’s pride, fear, remorse, self-loathing and rage come out like rank sweat through dirty pores. Sometimes Thomson talks to himself in the voice of Birdman – a husky croak similar to Keaton’s voice as Batman – and he sounds like the devil tempting a reformed miscreant to give in again to a grave sin. Of all the shafts Iñárritu fires, he reserves his sharpest contempt for the mindlessness and violence of modern action movies.
All the actors shine. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough play the two women joining Thomson onstage in his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s stories, and Edward Norton steals scenes as a guy with a bad temper, a drinking problem and an ego with elephantiasis. Thomson hires this talented rogue to play the second lead in his show, and the interloper’s bizarre behavior shakes up everyone he meets.
The prowling, peeping camera of Emmanuel Lubezki shapes the film, sometimes telescoping time. Thomson suggests a replacement actor for an injured performer; the camera rolls away from his dressing room, jaunts through the hallways and up onto the stage, and there stands the actor Thomson wants to hire.
Lubezki, cinematographer of choice for Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick, won an Oscar for last year’s “Gravity.” He’s just as much at home in the Broadway theater district; whether exploding action-movie myths or slithering through the darkened theater, his lens remains an integral part of the story. And for all his wizardry, his close-ups of Keaton’s lined face and haunted eyes have the most lasting effect.