As much as Michael Keaton would like to wave off comparisons between his once-high-flying career as the Caped Crusader and that of the desperate character he plays in his new film, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), there's really no point in ducking the parallels. We go to the movies to make the connection between lives lived off and on screen all the time. It's what turned up the heat between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith and allowed us to buy Mickey Rourke as a punch-drunk cautionary tale in The Wrestler. To deny that would be dishonest. Keaton was, of course, the star of Tim Burton's first two Batman films in the late '80s and early '90s before he walked away from the series. It remains a decision we can't help but wonder if he has regretted. Is that fair? Probably not. But it's through that same blurry prism that we watch him take flight in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's twisted and surreal dark comedy. And it's what turns a clever movie into a poignant one.
Keaton, now 63, with a vanishing hairline and a murder of crow's-feet framing his still-rascally eyes, plays Riggan Thomson, the onetime box office megastar of the blockbuster Birdman films. After the third installment in the fictional franchise, he gave up the cowl (and the wealth and fame that came with it). All these years later, he misses and craves the adulation something that the mocking, sinister Birdman voice in his head keeps reminding him of. As the movie opens, Riggan has staked the remainder of his savings and perhaps what's left of his sanity on a last-ditch attempt to put himself back on the public's fickle radar. He's writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's ''What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,'' an appropriately highbrow choice of material that lets us in on both Riggan's seriousness of purpose and lack of subtlety.
Birdman kicks off as a dizzy backstage farce. Still in previews, Riggan's play is shaping up to be a colossal disaster. He may or may not have gotten his leading lady (Andrea Riseborough) pregnant, his estranged daughter (Emma Stone) has signed on as his personal assistant and is a constant reminder of what a bad father he was, and his newest cast member (an excellent Edward Norton) is a self-serious loose cannon who's sleeping with his insecure costar (Naomi Watts). Iñárritu, the Mexican director of puzzle-piece melodramas such as Babel and 21 Grams, has a lighter, looser tone here, taking aim at the needy egos of theater folk and the craven carpetbagger mentality of Broadway today, where movie stars without stage training are leveraged to sell tickets. Goosing the satire to life is daredevil cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men), whose camera bobs and weaves amid the chaos in what looks like one long, breathless Steadicam shot.
As opening night approaches and the pressure on Riggan mounts, the taunting voice in his head grows louder until it's unclear what's real and what's imaginary. The film breaks with reality too, jackknifing into a trippy detour that audiences will either go with or not. For me, there was never any question. I was so all-in on Keaton's vanity-free, go-for-broke metamorphosis I would have followed him, or the movie, anywhere. Which is pretty much where it asks you to go. Birdman is a scalpel-sharp dissection of Hollywood, Broadway, and fame in the 21st century. But more than that, it's a testament to Keaton's enduring charisma and power as an actor. He soars. A-