Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) may be something less than the sum of its dazzling parts, but it is a sight to behold and an entertaining, culturally zeitgeist-y inside-baseball farce of life as an actor in the time of Marvel Studios.
What life as an actor in the time of Marvel Studios has to do with the price of rice in China, so to speak, would be a fair question from the everyday American, but Birdman suggests both the unbearable triteness of being an actor whose ability is squandered, and the spirituality of what a talented actor experiences and can offer under the best of circumstances. Helping matters for Iñárritu is his leading man: the idiosyncratic and gifted Michael Keaton in a role that holds the funhouse mirror up to his own life in art.
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a faded movie star looking for artistic redemption and validation by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomson's fall from Hollywood grace corresponded with his abandonment of the superheroic Birdman franchise, which (like Keaton's Batman collaborations with Tim Burton) predated the genre's current stratospheric peak of nearly year-round cineplex clogging in the escalating civil war between Disney-aligned Marvel and Warner Brothers-owned D.C.
The absurdity of this arguable infantilization of cinematic art (each interchangeable picture characterized by one character as "any toxic piece of crap"), the literal and figurative pretentiousness of actors, and the way the former has threatened to swallow the latter whole fuels Birdman's fire. While occasionally scintillating, the screenplay by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo feels ironically secondary to the jazzy style born of Iñárritu's fertile imagination and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's wizardry in capturing and stitching together long takes into a film that appears to be one long, unbroken shot.
The approach sucks us into Thomson's maddening subjective experience of egomania, yearning, and one-thing-after-another stress, frequently punctuated with trou-dropping anxiety-dream reminders of the actor's vulnerability to emotional and personal exposure (Edward Norton proves once more brilliant in a self-mocking turn as a truly great actor and truly pathetic man). There's more than a pinch of 8 1/2 in Iñárritu's three-ring circus, complete with a gaggle of women (including Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and Lindsay Duncan) circling Keaton's ringmaster and a surrealist view of human existence and co-existence (added points for having recent Broadway-baby Spider-Man dance by in lieu of a little person).
Though scattershot, the crackpot Birdman on some level tells a relatable story of one person's attempt to get, for once, something right, while functioning as a useful cultural critique of the disconcerting inextricability of commerce from art on stages and screens.