Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu pulls out all the stops in his latest film, “Birdman,” which plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center over Thanksgiving weekend. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan, an over-the-hill movie star. Coasting on the success he encountered portraying a comic book superhero, Riggan tries to revive his career by mounting a theatrical production of a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
We meet Riggan as he meditates in his dressing room, literally levitating before a window. On occasion he can move objects telepathically, fly, or cause explosions. His persona as the superhero Birdman sometimes speaks to him or makes an appearance. One character after another joins Riggan — his lawyer/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), lead actress and old friend Lesley (Naomi Watts), his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and Mike (Edward Norton), who replaces a male lead in the play who gets beaned by a klieg light.
One by one these characters feed Riggan’s various crises de conscience in “Birdman,” which Iñárritu has archly subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence.” Will Riggan’s Broadway production at the St. James Theatre revive his career and redeem his belief in himself as a serious actor? Will method actor Mike take over and steal the spotlight, as well as seducing Riggan’s daughter? Can Riggan atone for having been a neglectful father? How has his success as the feathered Birdman affected his sense of himself?
“Birdman” is filled with excursions into magical realities, as well as making sophisticated literary references appropriate to the theatrical world, from Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag to Jorge Luis Borges. Brilliant camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki creates the illusion of a single, extended take, à la Hitchcock, as characters move through a claustrophobic rat’s warren of backstage corridors and stairways in the St. James. These inside scenes of the theater — as well as those on the building’s rooftop — serve as metaphors for the inner workings of the actor’s world. At one point, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theater, and, when his robe gets stuck in the closed door, he is forced to march through Times Square’s crowds dressed in nothing but his underpants.
Not far from the surface in this exploration of the actor’s psyche are real-life aspects of the career of Mr. Keaton, who played Batman in several Tim Burton movies starting in 1989, and that of Mr. Norton, who did a turn as the Incredible Hulk. “Birdman” draws relevance from the preponderance of Hollywood actors as varied as Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco making appearances on Broadway and helping invigorate New York’s theater scene. Riggan even goes head to head with putative N.Y. Times theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who is contemptuous of his superstar career and threatens to denounce his play without even seeing it.
“Birdman” provides a kaleidoscope of the connections between Hollywood film “products” and the pretensions of live theater as the more serious art form. Backed by an imposing cast of supporting characters, Michael Keaton’s Riggan takes the viewer on the roller-coaster ride that is the inner workings of an actor’s career. The ride is both exhilarating and dizzying.