*** out of ****
It’s inaccurate to say Michael Keaton has disappeared from the big screen over the past decade. He appears in films just often enough to remind viewers he’s out there (and he’s often quite good, like in his supporting role in The Other Guys), but it’s been a long time since he had a lead role he could sink his teeth into. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new film Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) remedies that.
Keaton plays a washed-up former movie superhero who stakes his savings on a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s not going well — an injured actor is replaced last minute by a talented diva (the excellent Edward Norton), Keaton’s co-star/girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) thinks she’s pregnant, his daughter (Emma Stone) is just out of rehab and sulking around as a production assistant, and the media is ready to mock the former superhero with delusions of prestige.
Admirable ambition abounds here. Inarritu stages the film to look like it was shot in one continuous take, which certainly gives it a unique visual feel. Most movies shy away from magical realism, but Birdman embraces it fully, juxtaposing scenes where Keaton levitates himself and other objects with the behind-the-scenes drama of a Broadway production.
Birdman’s major flaw is that almost every scene seems to be pitched at 100% emotional intensity (a common issue in Inarritu’s work). It gets exhausting over the film’s two-hour running time, and the movie could have used a few lower-key scenes. A few of the subplots hit dead ends and are forgotten about by the climax.
But the movie will ultimately be remembered as an actor’s showcase for Keaton, who rises to the challenge admirably. Here’s hoping it becomes a permanent comeback.