The stunningly unique visual style and sacrificial slaughter of stardom makes “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” a modern day “Sunset Boulevard” — where winning and losing recognition can be a maddening experience.
That madness is shown through Michael Keaton’s spellbinding performance in the title role that’s so real and raw, it’s a little difficult to determine where director/writer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s words end and Keaton’s own life begins.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) was once the champion of the box office with a trio of superhero movies where he played Birdman. The fame of those films served him for a time, but it is now a dark shadow, with his career reduced to the level where he is offered reality show jobs.
His solution is to finance a legitimate Broadway production where he can show his dramatic skills. The effort is hampered by his concerns about his drug addict daughter (Emma Stone); a new, heavily opinionated actor (Edward Norton) who is either a genius or madman; and a tough theater world.
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This is all further complicated by the near madness Thomson shows by having conversations with the hero that originally made him a star. Iñárritu creates a thin line between the sanity of confidence and the insanity of doubt so that it’s never clear if Thomson is a victim of his broken mind or the master of it.
The cast deserves high praise — from Keaton’s soul-exposing turn as an aging former movie star to Norton’s nearly psychotic turn as a method actor.
Like a rich stage drama, each new character provides more levels to the story. Stone’s turn as Thomson’s daughter/assistant is the best work she has done. That’s particularly true in scenes with Norton because of the awkward sexual tension that adds even more heat to their scenes.
Iñárritu will get the lion’s share of praise for the originality that makes “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” one of the most compellingly acted and intellectually stimulating movies of the year.
But it is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who turns this compelling look at acting, celebrity and family into a visual journey that often defies the laws of physics. His seamless shots flow together with such grace and beauty that watching “Birdman” isn’t an ordinary movie experience. Because there appear to be no edits, the film comes across more as a staged play.
Characters strut and fret their way through scenes, taking the viewer by the hand, leading them through the maze of streets, corridors and rooftops of New York City.
And it’s not just the way the scenes smoothly connect. Lubezki often takes the camera from scene to scene through physical movements that seem impossible. It’s as if he has turned the camera into a living organism that can leap off tall buildings, pass through scenery, and move into and across a room without pause.
Iñárritu never allows the film to become complacent, whether it be the way the visual magic fits together, the constant metamorphosing of characters or the thought-provoking discussions. His diatribe on critics alone is enough to generate conversation.
The writing, directing and cinematography is so blissfully creative that the film would be a creative joy through those elements alone. It gets even more heart and artistic soul with a performance by Keaton that should earn him an Oscar nomination. Even more, it should earn him respect for his acting abilities that many may not have noticed because of the shadow of Batman that has loomed over his own career.