If “Birdman” were simply a backstage satire on the chaotic mounting of a Broadway play, it would be hugely entertaining. If it were solely a caustic commentary on the pompous buffoonery of Hollywood celebrity, it would be painfully hilarious. If it were wholly a searing psychodrama on the tyranny of overblown and indulged ego, it would be a wrenching revelation. Or if it were merely a jazz-infused riff on show-biz dreams that wavers between social realism and magical realism, it would be brilliantly inventive.
But writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s dazzling, virtuoso film is all those things and more. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” as its idiosyncratic title suggests, is a wildly ambitious stab at spanning the yawning gap between our notions of pop-culture celebrity and enduring artistry.
If Wim Wenders’ ethereal “Wings of Desire” were wed to Mel Brooks’ shticky “The Producers,” with best-man shades of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” and bridesmaid echoes of “The Black Swan” thrown in, then Inarritu’s savagely funny yet oddly poignant film might be the brilliant offspring.
The core narrative here deals with over-the-hill Hollywood star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), who made his bones years ago portraying caped avenger Birdman in a lucrative superhero film franchise, as he desperately seeks artistic redemption. His means to that end lie in mortgaging his Malibu home to produce, direct and star in a dramatic Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s wrenching short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Inarritu — employing the brilliant camera eye of Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) — composes the story in long, masterly tracking shots. They seamlessly swoop and glide over the Great White Way and dodge and dart through backstage corridors and into dingy dressing rooms in Broadway’s St. James Theater — all the action catapulted along by Antonio Sanchez’s brilliant, backbeat drum riffs. At intervals, Riggan’s gruff-voiced alter-ego, the beaked superhero Birdman, offers up running, ego-crushing commentary on the actor’s high-flown folly and sets the stage for some wondrous flights of magical realism that lift the story in its final act.
The backstage characters that populate Riggan’s vanity project form a miracle ensemble — including snarky Edward Norton as the Method-acting bad boy, wide-eyed Emma Stone as Riggan’s just-out-of-rehab daughter, sad-sack Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s long-suffering lawyer and a jittery Naomi Watts as Riggan’s insecurity-riddled co-star.
But the heart of the show belongs to Keaton, who inhabits this meta-dream role without a whiff of actorly vanity. With close-to-the-bone frankness, he summons up fading hints of his early, manic “Beetlejuice” energy and his “Batman” past, mixes in a walloping dose of his own middle-aged superpowers, and delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that makes the whole film soar.