Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014) is a high concept, high execution and highly self-conscious film that feels like something Charlie Kaufman would come up with. Designed to appear to have been shot in one continuous take - although the script does not unfold in real time - the film shows us a couple of days in the life of a washed up actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who 25 years ago starred in a popular superhero franchise. With his life and career spiraling downhill ever since, Thomson attempts a comeback by going deeply into debt to produce and star in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story, which he is sure will rebuild his artistic street cred.
While his play is besieged with problems, including a smug, insufferable co-star (Edward Norton) and a theater critic determined to destroy him (Lindsay Duncan), Thomson must also deal with a number of internal demons. He frequently hears the voice of a character from his past, usually dispensing destructive advice, and it appears he has somehow gained telekinetic powers, often with disastrous results. As the furious countdown begins to opening night, the pressures of his life and art tighten around Thomson like a noose, finally driving him to take the technique of method acting to a new and deadly level.
In Amadeus, Mozart’s music was derided for having "too many notes," and one could say that Birdman has too much acting. In the first half of the film, Keaton, Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone take turns delivering over-the-top mad scenes, with chunks of chewed scenery flying from their pearly bicuspids. These excesses are a bit puzzling; Alejandro González Iñárritu is an excellent director who should clearly know a hammy performance when he sees it. Perhaps these outsize effects are intended to make some kind of point about these actors’ inability to deal with real life. Whatever the reason, it’s more distracting than involving. The film's one take conceit, while technically impressive, grows a bit annoying as the film wears on, with seemingly endless shots of people trudging down dim corridors on their way to administer or receive another loud dose of verbal abuse. Worst of all, Birdman’s bombardment of artifice never lets you forget you are watching a movie. The film never induces that blissful sense of hypnosis that distinguishes truly good cinema; that magic moment when viewers forget their own lives and become completely invested in the events and characters on screen.
Despite this litany of complaints, I respect what Iñárritu is trying to do - what I think he is trying to do anyway - and it’s refreshing to have a widely released film that isn’t the same old popcorn pablum. The film sheds a bit of its airless claustrophobia in the second half, as Riggan's psyche solidifies its grip on movie. In one of film’s best scenes, Iñárritu turns the idea of a costumed superhero on its ear as Keaton wanders Gotham’s Times Square clad only in his underwear after being locked out of his dressing room. It's a perfect metaphor of pop culture illusions stripped bare, as the heroic trapping are removed revealing a saggy farmer tan substrate. Birdman's brilliantly foggy epilogue - which feels much more like a Raymond Carver conception than Riggan's lurid play - completes the narrative arc by tying it all in a sturdy seaman's knot. The true superhuman feat here is that an uncommercial oddity like Birdman ever got made in the first place. Sure, as Batman, Michael Keaton defeated the Joker and the Penguin, but he never faced a villain as daunting or dastardly as the confused state of the human soul in the world of 2014.