Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a has-been celebrity who once ruled the box office as Birdman, the first true super hero blockbuster of the modern era. He's spent the past two decades living in the shadow of his past glories and is ready to kick start the next phase of his career, only this time he pines for validation and legitimacy as a serious stage actor. Of course things go awry shortly before Riggan's play is set to open and the madness that is Birdman starts to unfold.
Inarritu's choice of casting is the first, obvious stroke of genius with his new film. Michael Keaton of Batman acclaim, starring as the once mighty Birdman? Check. Edward "Marvel's arch nemesis" Norton playing a notoriously eccentric and difficult actor? Check. Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts, they're all brilliant. The film's commentary on modern society's notions of fame, viral internet culture and critique of what truly constitutes "art" are done masterfully. Riggan may be a delusional old narcissistic hack, but as the film's extended title hints, there's something strangely likeable about that. Writing, directing and starring in his first Broadway show, the man is either overtly ambitious, or insane. When he's levitating and having existential shouting matches with his repressed Birdman alter ego, you assume it's the latter, but in Inarritu's dazzling cinematic magic carpet ride, you never can tell.
All the buzz behind Birdman stems from the film's manic energy. Inarritu and cinematographer/magician Emmanuel Lubezki [Gravity, Tree of Life, Children of Men] shot Birdman so that the entire film resembles one gargantuan extended take. This creates an unwavering sense of urgency that, coupled with the film's amazing jazz percussion score, gives the impression that the movie will fly off the rails at any moment...then of course, you know, it actually does. The way the camera maneuvers through the tight hallways and huge expanses of the theater's stage and captures the cast's unbroken diatribes in real time, it's like Christmas for film geeks, bored to death of the CGI crap fests we're subjected too every summer. Keaton's performance is so visceral and frenetic, while Inarritu's grip on the reigns is lax enough to feel both entertaining, and unnerving. When Riggan's dark alter ego starts to rear his head, when the percussive back beat transforms into a ticking time bomb, when the camera spins and reveals explosions littering the sky, I half expected Beetljuice to leap onscreen and shout, "C'mon!" like it was 1988 allover again. That's how wildly surreal and intense things get.
Go see Birdman if you're a fan of movies. Period. They'll be talking about and dissecting this one for years to come.