Contrary to what the promotional materials would have you believe, the star of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new film Birdman isn’t Michael Keaton. It’s true that Keaton is onscreen for roughly ninety percent of the film, and it’s also true that he turns in a terrific performance—perhaps the best performance of a career spent mostly in the shadow of his star turn as the title role in Tim Burton’s Batman films. By casting Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a once-hot star of big-budget action movies, now middle-aged, paunchy, discontented, and trying to prove to himself and the world that he can be a serious actor by mounting a ham-fisted stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Birdman plays (sometimes cleverly, sometimes obviously) on the absurdity and fickleness of celebrity and the ages-old feud between Hollywood and Broadway. If the film (co-scripted by a team of four screenwriters—hardly ever a good sign) is never quite as sharp or perceptive as it tries to be, it’s buoyed up by Keaton’s performance, which is loose and funny and has a little bit of the manic, loose-cannon quality that he brought to memorable early roles like Beetlejuice. His Riggan Thompson is tired, desperate, and may be losing his mind; he’s hen-pecked by the nagging voice of his superhero persona, Birdman, and he appears to believe that he possesses telekinetic powers, which he unleashes in fits of destructive rage. In the quieter, more subtly drawn moments of the film, Riggan tries to forge emotional connections with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and estranged daughter (Emma Stone), and Keaton is given the opportunity to sound more dramatic notes, which he does effortlessly.
Emma Stone isn’t Birdman’s star either, even though she steals just about every scene she’s in, playing the daughter as a live wire with a smart mouth. Nor is it Edward Norton, the film’s other comeback kid, who nails the role of Riggan’s smug, simpering co-star (his character’s commitment to Method acting is so great that he believes that everything that happens onstage should be “real,” even the sex). No: the film’s star is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who, fresh off of the meteoric success of last year’s Gravity (for which he won an Oscar), has shot Birdman in a series of seemingly continuous long takes. It’s the kind of cinematic stunt that’s been attempted in the past by Hitchcock and Alexandr Sokurov and that Lubezki has been prepping for in his frequent collaborations with Alfonso Cuaron. (Cuaron, Lubezki, and Inarritu all hail from Mexico City and are friends.) Is it possible that Lubezki is the real genius behind the films for which I’ve always given Cuaron credit? The wittiness and fluidity of his camerawork helps give levity and bounce to Birdman, which might otherwise have congealed into a soggy mess. I’m not convinced that there’s much going on beneath the surface here, but Lubezki and the film’s talented ensemble make that surface so attractive that I didn’t much care. It’s a delicious soufflé of a film.