Michael Keaton is a great actor, and he may at last have found his great role, in “Birdman.”
That may sound like a strange statement about a guy who made many lowbrow comedies, a couple of Batman movies, and a string of nearly-forgotten films.
But, like Bill Murray and Jim Carrey, Keaton understands how comedy is part of a physical performance, how laughter is intertwined with pain and longing. A comedian like Keaton struggles in the open with these things. For him, there's a great deal at stake.
There's a great deal at stake, also, for Keaton's character Riggan Thomson. He was a success many years ago in three “Birdman” superhero movies, and now has decided to make his Broadway debut, directing starring in, and adapting a Raymond Carver short story (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) for the stage.
Also, Riggan hears a voice his his head and appears to have telekinetic powers. Keaton's co-stars are superb, totally dedicated to the cause. Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Edward Norton play fellow actors, Emma Stone is his wounded daughter, Zach Galifianakis is his friend and business partner, and Amy Ryan is his ex-wife.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu seemingly films the movie in one continuous take. Or, more accurately, there are no visible edits. The great Emmanuel (“Gravity”) Lubezki's camera tracks through dressing rooms, down narrow hallways, snaking around backstage, up to hidden balconies, and occasionally outside.
This approach creates a very different rhythm for a movie; edits usually provide little breaks, a little “reset” between moments and scenes, but in “Birdman,” everything is a continuous maelstrom.
The movie is perfectly tuned to Keaton's instrument. It leaps and pitches, dips halfway to insanity, and remains firmly rooted. It may be the first time since “Beetlejuice” that a movie has fully supported him.
What a gift that Iñárritu has devoted himself to such a passionate actor, and such a worthy cause. It's the best film in the director’s career, which lately has been devoted to Oscar-hunting (“21 Grams,” “Babel,” “Biutiful”).
“Birdman” toys with many themes, flitting through the film like streams of consciousness, leaving half-remembered impressions. What is an actor? Is real art better than commercial entertainment? Why do we need love, or adoration? What do we want out of life? Do we have the simple power of truly appreciating a bird, or a flower?
In this movie, the answers are always there, but the catch is that we never stop moving.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes