Back in 1982 Michael Keaton seemingly came out of nowhere and upstaged Henry Winkler with his performance in “Night Shift.” At the time, Keaton had worked mostly in television (his first credit was as a” volunteer” on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”
in 1975). His work as Bill Blazejowski in “Night Shift” was a breakout role, and a few years later he made a real name for himself as Betelgeuse in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.”
He did a stint as the caped crusader in “Batman” in 1989 and “Batman Returns” in 1992. For several years thereafter he took on supporting roles (“Out of Sight,” “The Other Guys”) without much distinction until he once again pulled off a scene-stealing performance as the rogue Internet streaming personality Monarch in “Need for Speed” earlier this year.
Now Keaton has returned to a lead role in “Birdman (also known as “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), a uniquely structured character study by director and writer Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, whose earlier works have included “Amores Perros,” “Babel,” “21 Grams” and “Biutiful.”
The product of three writers in addition to Inarritu — Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo — “Birdman” is the behind-the-scenes look as Riggan (Keaton), a washed-up actor who years earlier had played an iconic superhero called Birdman, tries to resurrect his floundering career and redeem himself as a serious actor by directing and starring in a Broadway stage production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Aside from a crumbling career, a failed marriage and an alienated daughter, Riggan is occasionally visited by a voice in his head, the voice of his younger self, insisting he reprise his Birdman role and return to the top of his game.
Meanwhile, Riggan has to deal with the problems that inevitably arise as a stage production moves into the final rehearsals and premiere showings. Among the personalities weaving in and out of Riggan’s immediate existence are Jake (Zack Galifianakis), his high-strung attorney and financial handler; Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of his lead actresses about to make her Broadway debut in the play; Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the other lead actress and with whom he is romantically involved; Mike (Edward Norton), a late replacement in the other male lead role, a man who functions better on stage than in real life; and Sam (Emma Stone), his daughter, fresh out of rehab and still smoldering with resentment over her father’s absentee parenting while she was growing up.
Inarritu and his production staff have employed a single tracking shot effect, which can be riveting as the movie flows from one scene to the next without any cuts. The impression is similar to that of a live show being recorded with no pauses or additional takes.
Also unique is the drum score by Antonio Sanchez, heavy percussion interwoven with orchestral music. Some viewers might find the drum work jarring.
While visually appealing, “Birdman” is primarily about the performances, and Keaton does his best work in years as a man beset by regrets over his life, along with the anxieties that go with taking a major career risk. Some of the best scenes involve the interaction between Riggan and Mike, two giant egos posturing and trying to manipulate one another. Mike does not hide his disdain for Riggan as an actor and director while Riggan sees through the shallowness of this man who behind the curtain has many imperfections.
Among the women, Stone stands out as Sam, interjecting some insight that lifts the young woman from the usual portrayal of a person embittered by a dysfunctional family life. Watts and Riseborough also have some moments but their characters fade a bit, overshadowed by the performances of Keaton, Norton and Stone.
Some debate may arise over the metaphysical turn “Birdman” takes in the final moments, an abrupt change of tone from a grounded comedy-drama to what evolves into a fantasy sequence. Viewers who go with the flow of this change of course may find “Birdman” to be an interesting and layered study of the emotional ride performers must endure as they prepare to put it all out there for an audience that can either embrace or reject their work.