Reviewed by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times
“Birdman,” a big bang of movie razzle-dazzle from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, opens with a winking sleight of hand. Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood has-been turned Broadway second-chancer played by a blissed-out Michael Keaton, is hanging out in his dressing room at the St. James Theater in Times Square, by which I mean floating, like a mystic who’s passed transcendence and gone straight to nirvana. It’s a destabilizing liftoff for a funny, frenetic, buoyant and rambunctiously showboating entertainment in which Mr. Iñárritu himself rises high and then higher still.
It’s a nice change of direction for Mr. Iñárritu, whose has tended to pull viewers low and then lower in beautiful bummer movies, like his last one, “Biutiful,” about a terminally ill man who communes with the dead. For “Birdman,” he has lightened both his mood and metaphysical load to productive effect by concentrating on Riggan’s efforts to stage — as writer, director and star — an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It sounds like an alarming idea (and a strange fit, especially given Carver’s minimalism and Mr. Iñárritu’s maximalism), yet Riggan has bet his career on it in hopes that the play will deliver him from his ignoble, lucrative past playing a screen superhero called Birdman.
Did someone say Icarus? Well, no, that name doesn’t come up in this backstage comedy (and sometimes drama), at least not that I remember, although Mr. Iñárritu and his co-writers (Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) toss others including Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges and Martin Scorsese. The story is as old as time — the play’s the thing, once again — and unwinds over several dreamily integrated days and nights that take Riggan from his meditative calm through the labyrinthine halls of the St. James in the hours and minutes leading up to the opening, during which (big breath): He rehearses an actor, receives a kiss, throws a punch, downs a drink, smokes a joint, walks a street and waxes poetic, comic, tragic and melodramatic.
Embracing the principle of more, Mr. Iñárritu packs the movie with multitudes, assorted backstage shenanigans, showbiz clichés and commedia dell’arte types. As Riggan moves onstage and off, from rehearsal to dressing room, he finds romance in the wings, instigates a little cloak and dagger, and powers through some heart-to-heart encounters with his rehabbed daughter, Sam (a wonderful Emma Stone in sexy-cynical ragamuffin mode). A supercilious theater actor, Mike, played by a pitch-perfect, perfectly cast Edward Norton, challenges Riggan mentally and physically by declaring his allegiance to the theater (truth or bust!) at one point wielding a copy of Borges’s “Labyrinths” so ostentatiously that even the most myopic moviegoer should be able to read the title.
Action creates reaction, and together they create flowing, organic form in “Birdman.” Riggan isn’t the only man on the move: So is Mr. Iñárritu, who has staged and shot the movie so that it looks like everything that happens, from airborne beginning to end, occurs during one transporting continuous take. The camera doesn’t just move with the story and characters, it also ebbs and flows like water, soars and swoops like a bird, its movement as fluid as a natural element, as animated as a living organism. (Like that famous Steadicam shot in “GoodFellas“ but longer.) Mr. Iñárritu’s partner in illusionism is the director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, a Houdini of fluid camera movements whose genius is for keeping you watching rather than distractedly wondering.
The camerawork in “Birdman” is an astonishment, and an argument that everything flows together, which in this movie means the cinematography, the story, the people, even time and space. And as soon as Riggan floats down to earth, a series of walls — between character and actor, onstage and off, representation and reality — begin to collapse. The most obvious divide is between Mr. Keaton, who, starting in 1989, played Batman in two movies directed by Tim Burton, and Riggan, who made a killing playing Birdman, a feathered franchise jackpot. Years later, Riggan appears haunted by Birdman, whose image stares out from a poster hanging in the actor’s dressing room and who, in a creepy basso profundo rasp, offers a stream of Sammy Glick-isms about career and fame.
A few movies back, Mr. Iñárritu parted ways with his frequent collaborator, the writer Guillermo Arriaga. The two had joined forces with the 2000 triptych “Amores Perros” and then proceeded to win new admirers and detractors with other multi-stranded narratives, “21 Grams” and “Babel.” I fell for “21 Grams” despite its absurdities, largely on the strength of its performances by the likes of Naomi Watts, who, in “Birdman,” plays an actress, Lesley. But Mr. Iñárritu lost me with “Babel,” less because of its melodramatic excesses than because of its mechanistic quality and sanctimony. “Birdman” marshals its enjoyable excesses into a rigorous form, too, but here a newly generous Mr. Iñárritu has made room for the audience’s pleasure.
He’s also given the finger wagging a rest. To that end, it’s worth drawing your eye to the small card stuck on one of the mirrors in Riggan’s dressing room that reads, “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” It sounds a bit like Gertrude Stein or poorly translated Kant, but is attributed to Susan Sontag. It may be a gloss on a line from “Against Interpretation,” her book of essays on impoverished criticism and its “shadow world of ‘meanings.’ ” (“A work of art is a thing in the world,” she writes, “not just a text or commentary on the world.”) There’s plenty to embrace in Sontag’s polemic, though a critic can perhaps be forgiven for rooting around in the shadow world of meanings if the artwork has cloaked itself in Meaning and Importance, as some of Mr. Iñárritu’s movies have done.
You can dig or just skate in this significantly better new one, the full title of which is “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” That phrase appears late in the movie, by which time Riggan has dodged various bullets, including a lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough, amusing); an ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan, touching); and his frantic producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis, deftly funny). Riggan has also crossed paths with a terribly mean theater critic for The New York Times, the rhymes-with-witch Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who threatens to close his play before seeing it. Her threat provokes a savage verbal assault on her from Riggan, an invective that by its very heat, expresses a conflicted desire for her benediction. This, you see, is also what we talk about when we talk about love.