Birdman

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* * * 1/2

Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu’s audacious backstage redemption tale, is at once an incisive portrait of the artistic ego and a rage against the dying of the (spot)light, a personal movie about art as savior, second chances, aging, irrelevance and an indictment of a fickle industry that eats its own when they are no longer bankable. It’s also an exhilarating piece of cinema, courtesy of its daring cinematography. And then there’s that aces performance from Michael Keaton, riffing on his live-wire persona while infusing it with funny/sad, seasoned pathos.

Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a formerly hot Hollywood property who made his career as an action star as a blockbuster superhero named Birdman—once upon a time, Keaton himself was Batman—but who has now been tossed out, floundering in Hollywood decades after walking away from the franchise.

Relocating to Manhattan, Thomson pens a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, hoping to reinvent himself as a Broadway triple threat and also directing and acting in the production, which co-stars an egomaniacal A-lister (Edward Norton, tongue-in-cheek) who sells tickets, the actor’s real-life love and leading lady (Naomi Watts, wonderful) and Thomson’s younger girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), who may or may not be pregnant.  And then there’s a slimmed down Zach Galifinakis as Thomson’s attorney who also happens to be producing the show, keeping it all together.

Also around is Thomson’s rehabbed, cynical daughter (Emma Stone), assistant to the production, who in a bracing monologue lectures her insecure dad on his own irrelevance after he tears open both generational and familial discord.  The dynamic is complicated by the arrival of his patient former wife (Amy Ryan), who gets one of the picture’s best lines: “Just because I didn’t like that romantic comedy you made with Goldie Hawn didn’t mean I didn’t love you.”

Written and directed by the world-class Mexican filmmaker Gonzalez-Inarritu, who seems incapable of making a less-than-great film after Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, Birdman often feels like a black comedy in tone, as much a jazzy meditation on a capricious industry as a plea to remain relevant in a changing modern world, and the roles everyone must play—familial, professional, personal, and even, as Thomson resists, a superhero to one’s own self-esteem. There isn’t a note of this that Keaton doesn’t play and without a shred of vanity, neuroses hanging out as much as nakedness after an unfortunate mid-performance lock-out leaves Thomson stranded in Times Square sans wardrobe.

Birdman himself is always invisibly over Thomson’s shoulder, advising him, haunting him, a dichotomy of both his glory days and disdain for his own selling out, a dark angel and alter-ego whose powers Thomson still, deep down, clings to. With a lot on the line and an opening night looming, Thomson’s identity remains in crisis, blisteringly depicted in a confrontation with the haughty, all-powerful New York Times theater critic (a brief, stinging performance from Lindsay Duncan) with an axe to grind against Hollywood stars on Broadway, and who sight unseen informs Thomson that she plans to close the show immediately with a scathing pan.

All of this is shot by Oscar-winning Emmanuel Lubezski in the close quarters of the Broadway theater itself, twisting through the byways of every backstage hallway, shadowy corner, dressing room, up and downstage, into the audience, to the rafters and rooftops, out of the windows onto the adjacent sidewalks and into Times Square.  All of this is done in a breathtaking, faux single-take that runs nearly the course of the entire picture, a feat of camera moves and choreography that, while not truly a single shot, is elegantly fluid trickery of a high order.

At this time of year, pictures face tremendous scrutiny as potential Oscar contenders, and while Birdman’s warts-and-all subject matter and edgy treatment may prove slightly higher-brow and less accessible than inevitable, lesser pictures to arrive shortly, no matter—Birdman is one of the year’s most inventive, smartest, funniest pictures.

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