Every once in a while, a film comes along that starkly divides critics and audiences. I usually take this as a sign that an artist has taken a chance and created something new. That is the case with Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, a sprawling, thrilling film that, for better and worse, is one of the most fully realized personal visions to hit screens in years.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor famous for playing a superhero named Birdman in the 1990s, but who fell into relative obscurity after leaving the role following three highly successful Hollywood blockbusters. Now, he is attempting a comeback by staging a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But the pressure of writing, directing, and producing the play with his own money is driving him slowly insane as opening night approaches. He starts to believe he has telekinetic powers that only manifest themselves when others aren't around. And maybe he does — Birdman is not the kind of movie that gives you simple answers to the questions it poses.
The mixture of reality and fantasy extends past the screen, as there is no escaping the comparisons between Keaton, who went into semi-retirement on his ranch in Montana after capping a brilliant career in the 1980s with two Batman movies for director Tim Burton. I don't know if Keaton, who is riveting in the film's make-or-break role, thinks he can move things with his mind in real life, but I'm pretty sure Iñárritu does. The technical challenges he called on his cast and crew to overcome in this film rival the most complex in history. He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for his work on Gravity, take a page from Alfred Hitchcock's playbook and stage the entire film as one continuous shot. Hitchcock did it in 1948's Rope, which takes place almost entirely in one New York apartment. Similarly, all of Birdman happens in and around the historic St. James Theatre in Times Square, but digital technology has given Lubezki much more freedom of movement than Hitch enjoyed. The camera functions almost as another character in the film, swooping through corridors and spying on the players as they struggle through a parade of theatrical disasters.
A host of excellent actors revolve around Keaton, delivering uniformly awesome performances. Most surprising is comedian Zach Galifanakis as Jake, Thomson's long suffering manager. Edward Norton turns in a wry, self-depreciating turn as Mike, a hotshot actor who is called in at the last minute to replace a crappy thespian whom Thomson may or may not have tried to kill with his telekinesis. Emma Stone is excellent as Sam, Thomson's resentful, just-out-of-rehab daughter who is struggling to stay straight as she chafes at even the low level of control her father tries to impose on her.
Birdman works as a Noises Off-style backstage comedy, but it is just as much an essay on what the creative process looks like from the inside. Iñárritu tells as clear a story as he ever has in his career, but it's clear that plot is a secondary consideration for the director. He enthusiastically pours ideas big and small onto the screen and doesn't seem particularly concerned if all of them register with the audience or not. By making the bad guy Lindsay Duncan's Tabitha, a snarling New York Times theater critic who promises to savage the play out of spite before she has even seen it, he is all but daring folks like me to criticize him. Several have taken him up on the dare, and now it's my turn:
Can it with the false endings, Iñárritu. I counted three places where Birdman could have ended on a more satisfying note without sacrificing any of the power or themes that you spent so much time and energy conjuring. C'mon, Poltergeist was 30 years ago. Popular screenwriting books have made false endings fashionable again, but they have become a crutch that filmmakers lean on to avoid making the hardest choices. Pick an ending and go with it.
Wow. That felt refreshingly honest. Just like Birdman!