Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Is it a tragedy, a comedy, a fantasy or just a satire?

One of the most original films of the decade, Birdman is a filmmaking tour de force, though this is no guarantee that you will enjoy watching it.

The camera also dances around characters in a fluid mesmerizing way, frequently zooming in for stunning close-ups that really let the actors shine.

Directed (and cowritten) by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, Babel), Birdman stars Michael Keaton as Riggan, an actor whose popular role as the action hero Birdman is two decades behind him (just like Keaton’s own role as Batman). Wondering whether his life has ever mattered at all, Riggan adapts a short story by Raymond Carver into a play for Broadway and invests everything he has in one last attempt at a comeback (he is directing and starring in the play).

But one crisis follows another, beginning with Riggan’s bad decision to replace one of the play’s four actors with Mike (Edward Norton) at the last minute. While Mike, who is living with another one of the actors (Lesley, played by Naomi Watts), may be a great actor, it turns out that he is also an insane egotist. And then there’s Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), whom Riggan has hired as his assistant. Struggling with her addictions and mixed feelings about her father, Sam is not an encouraging presence in Riggan’s life (she’s happy to tell him that his life has never mattered). His ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), also does more harm than good when she drops in to ask him what he’s doing. Riggan’s girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), puts the icing on the cake when she tells him she’s pregnant on the eve of the play’s preview. Oh, and then there’s a theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who’s ready to pan the play without even seeing it.

To deal with all of these crises (including his existential crisis), or as a result of these crises, Riggan talks to Birdman. And Birdman talks back. Birdman also encourages the development of Riggan’s telekinetic abilities. Or does he?

All of this could be entertaining enough even without the amazing camerawork and flawless acting. The camera follows characters from room to room and in and out of buildings as if the film is one long shot (which it isn’t). The camera also dances around characters in a fluid, mesmerizing way, frequently zooming in for stunning close-ups that really let the actors shine. The actors take full advantage of this. I’ve always liked Keaton, but this is far and away his best performance and is well-deserving of an Oscar. Stone is also remarkable, stealing every scene she’s in. And the rest of the actors named above are right behind.

To this list of Birdman’s attributes you can add a fascinating drum score, a Raymond Carver story in the background, and a brilliant thought-provoking screenplay full of intelligent (and often very funny) dialogue that satirizes our cult of celebrity, our smartphones, theatre critics, superhero films, and even us as viewers (there’s a comment about the way people prefer mindless action flicks to philosophical dramas like this one).

There is so much to love in this cinematic masterpiece. And yet Birdman is not an easy film to enjoy. For one thing, while the film is clearly attempting to say some profound things, it’s a constant struggle to get your head around what those things might be (e.g., the film never mentions God but it’s possible to see God throughout). This struggle is exacerbated by the intentional fine line between fantasy (delusion) and reality. Just when you think you have it figured out, something happens to derail your assumptions. Birdman could be the most depressing of tragedies or the most optimistic of fantasies.

Of course, this just means that there’s a lot to talk about and a good reason to watch the film more than once. These are good things, and I expect to like the film more after repeated viewings. For those who like cinematic art and are willing to take a possible plunge into darkness, don’t miss it.

Birdman is rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief violence.