Film review: Michael Keaton makes a stunning return to form in the showy ‘Birdman’

Michael Keaton flies above the city in Birdman (not Batman).

Three and a half stars

Birdman Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Actors disappear and make comebacks all the time, but Michael Keaton is an unusual case. Why and how he fell out of favor in Hollywood around the late 1990s isn’t clear—he’s worked steadily since, but always playing small supporting roles, or starring in movies that almost nobody saw. Like John Travolta 20 years ago, he needed a major director to offer him a showcase, something that would remind audiences what an electrifying talent he can be. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)—yes, that’s the full title—is the project he’s been waiting for. Co-written and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), it’s an emphatic tour de force from virtually everyone involved, and it incorporates Keaton’s personal history in a way that makes it impossible not to perceive the film as his bid for resurrection.

Just as Keaton walked away from the massively successful Batman franchise after two movies, his alter ego here, Riggan Thomson, opted not to continue playing his most popular character, a winged superhero called Birdman (who speaks with a deep, guttural voice exactly like the one both Keaton and Christian Bale used for Batman—this movie isn’t especially subtle). Twenty-five years later, Riggan’s movie career has stalled, and he’s busy directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” This requires juggling crises involving a manically Method fellow actor (Edward Norton) and his girlfriend (Naomi Watts), who’s also in the show; another actor with whom Riggan’s having an affair (Andrea Riseborough); Riggan’s ex-junkie daughter (Emma Stone); and the constant cutting remarks of Birdman himself (also played by Keaton), who resides permanently in Riggan’s psyche.

In an effort to maximize the intensity of this chamber piece, which is set almost entirely within and just outside the real-life St. James Theatre on 44th Street in Times Square, Iñárritu and his ace cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have contrived to make it appear as if the entire movie consists of a single shot, even though it spans several weeks. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but a fairly successful one, allowing the cast to spar with each other (literally, at one point) in real time over the course of arresting extended takes, stalked by a mobile camera. All of the actors do terrific work (especially Stone), but it’s particularly gratifying to see Keaton back at his hopped-up best, finding countless ways to make Riggan’s anxiety about the show and his future a visual and verbal correlative to the movie’s almost entirely percussive score (courtesy of drummer Antonio Sanchez). If Birdman doesn’t add up to much more than an opportunity for the folks who made it to show off, that’s okay. In Keaton’s case, we needed the memory jog.

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