Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)  (2014) dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu Rated: R image: ©2014  Fox Searchlight Pictures

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
Rated: R
image: ©2014 Fox Searchlight Pictures

Birdman is an assault on the senses. In the absolute. Best. Way.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu weaves around the characters with the camera, setting a frenetic pace that only rarely slowed to let me catch my breath.  This is matched beat for beat by Antonio Sanchez’s powerful, jazzy drum score.

Film is a visual art, and Birdman demands a visual discussion. It’s designed to look like one long take. Hitchcock tried with Rope, in 1948, to film an entire movie with minimal cuts. No small feat, since the technology of the time would only allow for about 10 minutes of shooting, before the camera had to be reloaded with film. Others have tried but the only success story, to my knowledge, is Russian Ark. The 2002 film is only 96 minutes.  They used, new at the time, digital hard drive technology to achieve one unbroken shot.  The third (and final, due to time and budget constraints) take was a success, but it took 2000 actors and three orchestras moving through 33 separate rooms to do it.

While not quite on that level, Birdman is a huge technical achievement. The camerawork throughout the film is virtually seamless. I say “virtually” because you can see where the creative team collaborated to design the cuts, if you’re paying attention. The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, has now won back-to-back Oscars for his work here and for last year’s stunning Gravity.

Michael Keaton plays washed-up Riggan Thomson, the once wildly popular star of the superhero Birdman franchise. Riggan’s had a rough time and has decided to make a play for legitimacy and relevancy by producing, adapting for the stage, directing and starring in a Broadway show based on Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

The film’s tension revolves around Riggan’s desperate attempts to keep his production, and himself, from falling apart before opening night. We move from one madcap sequence to the next, with a dizzying velocity. I didn’t know whether to laugh or hide in my seat as one mishap led to Riggan stalking through Times Square. In his underwear.

The story and screenplay (by Iñárritu and collaborators Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bó, Jr.) explore the very nature of celebrity and art: where the two converge, how one is affected by the other, and what celebrity and art even mean in a culture that measures success by number of YouTube views and Twitter followers. And the movie deals with these things seriously, but with a biting sense of humor.

From a postmodern perspective, Keaton is perfect for this role. He was Batman in the early 1990s, just as Riggan was Birdman. I’ve never gotten the sense that he’s had as rough of a time as Riggan. Still, it’s a brave choice for Keaton to link himself with this character, considering the obvious conclusions people will draw to his own career. He gives an incredible performance of a man on the edge with a loose grip not only on his credibility and financial stability, but also his sanity.

Keaton is fantastic, yes, but so is (most of) his supporting cast. Edward Norton shines as the pompous Broadway actor hired as a replacement just before the preview performances start. He is self-important and deadly serious about his craft. Anyone who has followed his career knows that Norton, too, is poking fun at his public persona here.

Naomi Watts and Emma Stone are each perfect as Riggan’s co-star and daughter, respectively. Watts does double duty as the costar of Riggan’s play, and the long suffering girlfriend of Norton’s character, Mike. She is the one responsible for bringing Mike in to save the play, but it’s a decision she almost immediately regrets. Stone is nearly flawless as the outcast daughter who has always played second fiddle to Riggan’s career.

British-born Andrea Riseborough does some suffering of her own as an actress who is romantically involved (for better or worse) with Riggan, and Amy Ryan is splendid in a cameo role as his ex-wife. The weak link is Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s agent, who is good but is coasting on his usual Zach Galifianakis thing.

Birdman is a technical and artistic success. It gets at those questions that must haunt anyone who is consumed by the paradox of celebrity and real artistic endeavor.  It is, without a doubt, one of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it.