Riggan Thompson has hit a bit of an existential rough patch.
He’s a Hollywood has-been, a former box-office draw most famous for his role as the superhero Birdman. But those days are long gone.
Now he’s sitting cross-legged in a dank Broadway dressing room, in his underwear, a Birdman poster on the wall. Is he meditating? Maybe. Is the gruff voice of his former alter ego playing in his head? Oh yes.
Is he, um, levitating, swami-style? Looks like it.
From there we follow him through the claustrophobic halls of a well-worn theater (the St. James Theater in Times Square, as it happens). And follow him. And follow him.
There are many things by which one should be amazed in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” so let’s start with the most obvious: Iñárritu (“Biutiful,” “21 Grams”) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) have constructed “Birdman” to look like one continuous, two-hour take.
Scenes, built on tracking shots, go on for six, seven, ten minutes. There are no visible cuts; when the camera needs to cut or a scene needs to change, which isn’t often, it pushes into a shadow. The camera orbits or follows precisely blocked actors who nonetheless make it look easy. It’s glorious to witness, a backstage symphony for eyes and ears.
The other element is, of course, Michael Keaton’s smashing performance in the title role; his iconic turn in the first two “Batman” movies looms over the proceedings. Or rather, Keaton is a man famous for playing a superhero playing a man famous for playing a superhero.
Keaton plays Thompson as a man taking what he knows is his last shot. In an attempt to win back some modicum of self-respect and (what he sees as) artistic relevance, he is financing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
He’s hired his estranged daughter (an intentionally haggard Emma Stone) as a personal assistant to see her more often, and his manager (Zach Galifianakis, in a comparatively straight-man role) tries to keep everything from becoming a boondoggle.
A total trainwreck seems in the cards. Thompson is the sort of director to “accidentally” brain an actor he dislikes with a giant spotlight in order to bring in Mike Shiner (a magnificently obnoxious Edward Norton) as a box-office ringer.
Shiner is pure New York theater pretentiousness, all scarves and Methody swagger and contempt for stardom, determined to get at “the truth” and nothing more. Then again, Thompson is able to get Shiner only because he happens to be sleeping with a fellow cast member, the wildly insecure Lesley (Naomi Watts) who, like Thompson, is making her Broadway debut.
Add to this a long-suffering ex-wife (Amy Ryan, excellent at always) and a dismissive, gate-keeping New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who seems determined to destroy the play just because she can. The play is already in previews, and things do not look good.
The emotional core of the story itself is not new, nor are any revelations the characters may or may not eventually experience.
What is so startling about “Birdman” is the extent to which everything — story, performances, style, score — feels of a seamless, labyrinthine whole. (Not for nothing is there a shot of Jorge Louis Borges’ “Labyrinths”).
Given the precise way actors must hit their marks for the scenes to extend so long, the performances are far more theatrical than filmic — fitting given the play-within-a-film structure. The magical realism of which Iñárritu is so fond acts as counterpoint to the realism of the theater. Keaton’s meta-commentary on his own past — sometimes literally a voice in his head — forms its own Moebius strip.
Make no mistake: This is virtuoso film-making worthy of multiple viewings, not to figure out “how they did it” but to marvel at the skill and timing it took to make it all come together.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis
Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor, Violet Crown