Before it got the Best Picture stamp, the bushy aura around Birdman was mostly that it was weird (it is). It's arty. It has very long takes. It's Michael Keaton at his best ever, even with the hackneyed rundown of a real-life washed-up Batman playing a fake-life cinematic superhero making a thea-tah comeback via a Raymond Carver adaptation.
Got all that? Great. No? It's okay, because it's time to just talk about the long takes. Because despite all of this movie's promise and ambitions, the truth is those seem to be what it wants to be about. And I'm just gonna say it: It may be art. It may be a movie about actors acting—the Academy so digs that!—but the filmmaking here detracts from the film. Worse, it detracts from the weird. And the weird of Birdman is so super good.
Take the opening shot. It's Keaton in a Walter White getup (tighty whites) sitting cross-legged and levitating, which is never explained. The jazzy drum soundtrack is a metaphorical character until it makes an actual cameo. Things explode telekinetically. And that throaty bully that is the voice in Keaton's head? It's really Keaton-as-Birdman trying to convince him to ditch a play and do another movie. Among other things.
We hear so much sooner than we see the feathered and scaly alter ego of Keaton's Riggan Thomson. That only helps to land the instantly classic scene when Birdman finally appears over Keaton's shoulder. (There's a pretty great parody of this featuring Big Bird and his puppeteer. I'll wait while you Google.)
All this to say: There's a lot going on here in addition to what turns out to be followable, solid plot. So can we please get over all the filmy wanking about director Alejandro González Iñárritu's grueling-on-actors technique to do the movie in chunky, unbroken swaths? My guess is not, since he won Achievement in Directing last Sunday, but still. The effect here was to make the hallways of the St. James Theatre compete with Keaton as the star. And let's face it: This much walking and brooding and talking and blowing up in hallways hasn't happened since TV critics liked Aaron Sorkin. And Keaton didn't need competition. That's why he should have won the damn Oscar!
So, backing up, just in case you need me to: Keaton plays Thomson, a complicated, egotistical, depressed actor who made superhero blockbusters before he got older and a little fatter and wanted to be the actor he thought he could be before he donned feathers. He adapts Carver's short story collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," directs and stars in it. The movie-about-the-play begins in the pre-dawn of Broadway previews.
Thomson's most fraught relationship, other than with the bird voice, is with a daughter whose life he checked out of (a tattooed Emma Stone). As a junkie-coming-good, Stone's got a Big Oscar Scene where she speaks truth to her father's worth and in it, she's mostly convincing at making you forget she was kissing Peter Parker/Spider-Man a few movies ago. Thomson's got an ex-wife, too, a noticeably miscast Amy Ryan, and you can just go ahead and forget her.
Because if there's someone competing with the director and his star for Birdman's legacy, it's Edward Norton. He's a guy so adept at feeding the weird, while still providing relief from it. Here may be the best example yet. Norton plays Mike, an actor who saves Thomson's play and then becomes his nemesis. The tension between Mike's cockiness and Thomson's vulnerability is also, to borrow a phrase, so super good. It builds and tips into a fight scene with Norton in a Speedo, fresh from the tanning bed he ordered just because he's worth it. Pure theater inside a theater and fun to watch, even if you've seen the trailer or that clip a dozen times.
Other actor side dishes here—Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts—are tasty, too. But it's really about the many forms Keaton and his character take in and, most memorably, outside of that many-hallwayed theater over 119 minutes.
In the first of those, you hear that deep, dark invisible voice: "How did we end up here? This place is horrible. We don't belong in this shithole." And when he finally does get out of the bowels of the St. James, there's freedom. There's flying. It's called Birdman, after all. Well, technically, it's called Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Because why simply title a movie when you can add parentheses and make Academy-approved art?
Birdman continues at the Roxy through March 5.