In “Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” Michael Keaton plays an actor named Riggan Thomson, who first appears hovering several inches above his dressing room floor, deep in meditation. He’s trying to ignore the voice of the title character, his alter ego, who takes the form of the comic book character he once played and whose superpowers he now seems able to conjure at the drop of a black leather cowl.
“How did we end up here?” Birdman growls in a sotto-voce whisper. “This place is horrible.” After a few more profane put-downs, “this place” is revealed to be backstage at New York’s St. James Theatre, where Thomson is directing and starring in an ambitious — and no doubt profoundly ill-advised — adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. As if that bid for artistic legitimacy isn’t freighted enough, Thomson also is trying to grapple with the personal life he neglected for years while pursuing fame in Hollywood, including his fractured relationship with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), a new girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who pops in and out of his preparations for opening night like an even-tempered, clear-thinking visitor from another, far more self-aware planet.
From this setup alone, “Birdman” has all the trappings of a deliciously tawdry backstage satire on a par with “All About Eve” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” but writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu throws in a delightfully wacky monkey wrench in the form of a pretentious actor named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who’s cast in the play at the last minute when a member of the ensemble is injured (with or without the help of Thomson’s Birdman-esque psychic gifts). The moment Shiner appears on the scene, the strutting and fretting are kicked up a notch, with Norton gleefully, even courageously, throwing himself into a performance that showcases the subtleties of acting nuance but also makes him look utterly ridiculous as a performer of surpassing arrogance and overweening vanity.
Narcissism, ambition, insecurity and the wages of celebrity are addressed in one fell swoop in “Birdman,” which Iñárritu and his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have filmed to resemble one long, unbroken take — a stunt that results in a film of delicate, even balletic, grace and one that poetically captures Thomson’s own state of mind. Tuned in, hyper-aware, Thomson moves through the world on a different frequency than his peers, or so he thinks: Through just a few casual gestures — and in one eyepopping set piece — the complicated, contradictory headspace Thomson occupies becomes palpable and real. Once a superstar, now human scale, he walks the boards and Broadway streets like a hungry ghost, searching for the potency his cartoonish persona once conferred, while simultaneously trying to escape the culture of pandering and cynicism he helped to create.
As much fun as “Birdman” is to watch from a sheer technical and aesthetic standpoint, it gains untold layers of meaning from the presence of Keaton, whose own career as the big-screen Batman that launched a never-ending franchise is clearly one of Iñárritu’s inspirations. As critical as “Birdman” is of the idea of the carefully calculated Hollywood comeback (and Lindsay Duncan as a vinegary critic delivers a soaring aria to that effect in one of the film’s best scenes), the film manages to be just that. Keaton’s performance, both as Thomson and the éminence grise hovering over his shoulder, is nothing short of a triumph — a quiet, un-showy one-man master class in humor, pathos, physical vulnerability and dimly dawning wisdom that seems always to be disappearing around one of the St. James’s labyrinthine corners.
Keaton is given ample support from a lively, limber, consistently alert ensemble, including the sly, scene-stealing Norton, the impressively feisty Stone (who delivers another one of the film’s best verbal solos), Naomi Watts as the production’s idealistic ingenue and Zach Galifianakis, here almost unrecognizable as the closest thing to a straight man, Thomson’s best friend and producer. Urged along by a musical score that consists mostly of percussive drumming and snatches of classical pieces, the actors gamely hit their marks in a meticulously choreographed dance that swoops and swirls with brash, contagious brio. Then there’s the supporting character of Manhattan itself, portrayed here as a seductive and indifferent bitch-goddess who may tantalize from afar but who can swallow a man whole in less than a New York minute.
Iñárritu, whose films include “Amores Perros,” “Babel” and “21 Grams,” has always been prone to his own brand of overworked pretentiousness. At the risk of sounding like Duncan’s sour-faced reviewer, his movies are little more than melodramas burnished with the patina of arty conceits and empty formalism. But the bravura gestures work gorgeously in “Birdman,” as does the humor, which playfully balances the film’s most mystical, contemplative ideas with a steady stream of inside jokes and well-calibrated shifts in tone and dynamics.
At another time, the preoccupations of “Birdman” — with relevance, artifice and the meaning of mass acclaim — might have been considered merely those of the rich and famous. But as Stone’s character makes forcefully clear, technology and social media have made them germane to anyone with an iPhone and a Twitter account. With grandeur, giddiness and a humanistic nod toward transcendence, “Birdman” vividly evokes a time of equal parts possibility and terrifying uncertainty, and makes a persuasive case that, when the ground is shifting beneath your feet, the best thing to do is to take flight.
★ ★ ★ ★
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity throughout, some sexual content and brief violence. 119 minutes.