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, cultural zeitgeist-y farce of life as an actor in the time of Marvel Studios.
"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 "Birdman" superhero franchise, which (like Keaton's "Batman" collaborations with Tim Burton) predated the genre's stratospheric peak in the escalating civil war between Disney-aligned Marvel and Warner Brothers-owned D.C.
The absurdity of this genre of cinematic art (each interchangeable picture characterized by one character as "any toxic piece of crap"), the 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 strangely 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 unbroken shot.
The approach sucks us into Thomson's maddening egomania, yearning and one-thing-after-another stress, punctuated with trou-dropping anxiety-dreams that remind us 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.
Though scattershot, "Birdman" tells a relatable story of one man's attempt to get something right for once, while functioning as a useful cultural critique of the entanglement of art and commerce on stages and screens.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence. One hour, 59 minutes.