By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — He was the Caped Crusader, twice, and then he walked away.
Now he’s back, starring in a movie about a star who walked away from his role as an iconic superhero in a lucrative movie franchise.
Ex-Batman Michael Keaton is the headliner in the exhilarating dark comedy Birdman, which carries the parenthetical subtitle, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.
Keaton plays actor Riggan Thomson, still known for, but no longer starring in, “Birdman” movies –- in which he could levitate, fly, and move things around telekinetically — because he walked away from the costume and thus the fame and fortune that went with it.
Maybe he doesn’t regret it, but he sure seems to miss being a superstar, which the voice in his head (which sounds a lot like Birdman) keeps reminding him about.
And he even seems to have retained, and sometimes inadvertently utilizes, some of the superpowers that came with the role.
So, to get back in the middle ring of the media circus and recapture his glory, he has put up what he has left of the money he accrued so that he can write, direct, and star in an adaptation on Broadway of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
The play is in previews as the film opens and things aren’t looking promising: they’ve lost one of the key actors to an accident; Thomson’s manager (a cast-against-type Zach Galifianakis) is worried about ticket sales; the replacement actor, Mike Shiner (a cast-to-type Edward Norton), is movie-star diva-cult; the female lead, film luminary Lesley (Naomi Watts), is insecure about this, her Broadway debut; Thomson’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab, working as her dad’s assistant, and peering ominously off the theater rooftop; the actress with whom Thomson is having an affair (Andrea Riseborough) is pregnant; his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) is trying to be supportive but isn’t headed back any time soon; and the New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who resents a movie star being a Broadway interloper, is threatening to mercilessly pan the show so that it will close.
Ain’t showbiz fun?
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrito (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (who shot last year’s Gravity), create and sustain the illusion that the film is one continuous take (à la Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), even though the narrative transpires over several weeks.
This on the surface would seem to be a stunt that would call attention to itself and pull focus from the narrative. But it turns out that the opposite is true. The fluid visual approach, which includes remarkably seamless scene transitions and whooshing camera movements as we follow the players through hallways and from room to room, pulls us in and makes the film more intense, more intimate, more interesting, and more insightful.
Meanwhile, the screenplay that Inarrito co-wrote with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo obliquely explores our celebrity culture and the mystery of talent and creativity in a farcical backstage format in such a way that electrifying scene follows electrifying scene, unexpected occurrence follows unexpected occurrence, and privileged fly-on-the-wall moment follows privileged fly-on-the-wall moment until we realize, halfway through the film, that it’s so intricately layered that we must — and want to –- see it again. Soon.
Reality and illusion seem joined at the hip as well. Realism, say hello to magical realism.
Put another way, either Thomson is hallucinating or he has, ex-Birdman that he is, figured out a way to levitate and fly.
Or maybe he’s just cracking up.
Performing this high-wire act, Keaton is stupendous, delivering a vanity-free lead turn in a movie that has more than its share of art-imitating-his-life parallels but also serves to remind us of what a major talent he was. And still is.
And the supporting cast is splendid, starting with Norton, who is Oscar nomination-worthy, and he and Keaton are gratifyingly complemented by Stone, Watts, Galifianakis, Ryan, and Riseborough.
So we’ll levitate 4 stars out of 4 for an unforgettable dramedy that takes wing as one of the year’s very best.
Original, audacious, exciting, and exhausting, Birdman soars.