One of the many things I love about “Birdman” is all the stuff happening beyond the screen — all the stuff we bring to the movie because after all, we know things about these actors and their histories.
So we have the always interesting Michael Keaton, who is more intense gazing at the mirror than some actors are in full-blown explosion mode, who can deliver the wisecrackery on the Bill Murray-Bruce Willis level, who played Batman 20 years ago — and in this movie he is playing an actor who played an action hero named Birdman some 20 years ago.
And we have Edward Norton, who’s considered an actor’s actor, playing an actor’s actor who mocks mainstream entertainment — but of course Edward Norton once played the Hulk.
And we have Emma Stone, who has played Spidey’s girlfriend, playing Keaton’s daughter, the kind of indie-rebel cynic who would never go to a superhero movie.
It’s just fun.
But there’s so much more to “Birdman,” one of the most original and one of the most unforgettable films in recent memory.
The phrase gets tossed around too cavalierly, but this is a real tour de force from the blazingly talented Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director of “21 Grams” and “Babel,” two of my favorite films of the last couple of decades. “Birdman” is filmed in what comes across as one, single, fluid shot, with the camera following the characters through the corridors of a theater and occasionally outside, into a New York City pulsating with noise and energy.
Keaton makes a serious case for a best actor nomination with his darkly funny, brooding, fiery work as Riggan Thomson. In the early 1990s, Riggan was a huge, international movie star thanks to the “Birdman” franchise, but he pissed it all away — refusing to do a “Birdman 4,” cheating on his wife (Amy Ryan), and never being there for his daughter, who is just out of rehab and not doing the greatest job of holding it together as she works as Riggan’s personal assistant. (“I hate this job!” she screams to Pops via video chat when she can’t find the specific flowers he wants for his dressing room.)
Now Riggan is adapting, directing and starring in Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s a heavy drama, about as far away from the “Birdman” franchise as possible, and it might be the 60ish Riggan’s last chance for any kind of a comeback, as his attorney/producer/last friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) constantly reminds him.
Naomi Watts is a neurotic actress thrilled and also terrified she’s finally on Broadway. Watts beautifully captures the undeniable magnetism as well as the “oh my God will she stop” neediness of, well, some actresses.
Edward Norton is Mike Shine, a major star with immense talent who is up to his ears in his own baloney. When Norton as Shine is onstage as a character in the play, acting within the acting, it’s amazing work. He’s also very funny.
“Birdman” does take a few missteps, as when a New York Times theater critic tells Riggan in advance she’s going to destroy his play simply because he’s a celebrity and he doesn’t get to do vanity theater projects in her town. She makes some great points about Hollywood actors who come to Broadway to tune their instrument and work on their craft and get back to their first love and all that noise, but she’s a paper-thin, false character. Any critic who publicly announces she going to crucify any work before she sees it should be fired on the spot, not lionized and feared.
Even with the brilliant camerawork and all the strong supporting performances, “Birdman” is almost always Keaton’s movie to carry, and it’s the crowning performance of his career. Like Riggan Thomson, Michael Keaton is an immensely gifted performer who didn’t quite fit into Hollywood’s notion of what an action hero or a leading man should be — and, like Thomson, Keaton is one of those great actors who occasionally prompts us to say, “Whatever happened to that guy, anyway?”
Well. He’s still here, and his work in this film is as good as any performance I’ve seen all year. Keaton can do so much with an arch of the eyebrow or by barely controlling his rage while confronting a nitwit — and he has a scene in his underwear in Times Square that’s an instant classic.
“Birdman” takes some great jabs at celebrity, the madness of the creative process, and our TMZ/Twitter/YouTube-driven culture. At times Riggan hears a voice: the voice of Birdman, who sounds an awful lot like the voice Keaton employed as Batman. As Riggan descends deeper into self-pity and the wheels come off his project while it’s still in previews, “Birdman” gets ever more intense and engrossing. This is a strange and beautiful and unique film, one of the best movies of the year.
Fox Searchlight Pictures and Regency Enterprises present a film directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu and written by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo. Running time: 119 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.