The first time we see Riggan (Michael Keaton), the conflicted soul at the center of Birdman, he's meditating. In his undies. His bared torso is that of a perfectly normal middle-aged man, which is to say a little soft and comical in those tighty-whiteys and not the sort that's typically brandished in a Hollywood movie.
It's not a big deal to most people, but meaningful to Riggan ("I look like a turkey with leukemia!" he howls when looking at himself in the mirror), a fading star who once acted in a superhero franchise about a masked, avian-themed vigilante named "Birdman." No longer a desired blockbuster lead, and anxious to prove himself a serious talent, Riggan is directing and starring in a Broadway play that he wrote himself, adapted from Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Riggan is also levitating in midair in that scene, a bit of yogic flight that's the first of many signs of superpowers he displays over the course of Birdman, abilities that the movie realizes in gorgeous fullness while giving us understated but solid reasons to believe they're all in his head. It's a splashy way to show us Riggan's growing delusional side as well as his ego — what A-lister, former or otherwise, believes himself bound by something as mundane as gravity?
Birdman, which opens in New York and L.A. on Oct. 17 and in more markets the weeks after, sets out to dazzle, and by god, does it. It's the fifth film from Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose career kicked off with the triptych Amores Perros and continued along a path that, while earning him two Academy Award nominations, became so gruelingly grim by his last film, 2010's Biutiful, that it approached arthouse self-parody. Birdman — which Iñárritu wrote with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo — feels as broadly ambitious as Babel, his most widely watched work to date, but without the crushing burden of self-importance. It flies as free as Riggan in that early moment, hovering over the Earth before its chaos drags him back down.
It's focused on a play, but Birdman might as well be a film about filmmaking, and about creation in general, in all its messy, terrifying, vulnerable glory. As he goes into previews, Riggan is juggling a new co-star (Edward Norton) who's talented but way too "method" for his own good, a daughter (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab who's working as his reluctant assistant, an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), an increasingly uneasy producer/bestie (Zach Galifianakis), an insecure leading lady (Naomi Watts), a vicious theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), and Birdman himself, a manifestation of Riggan's fears and vanity who talks to him in a low growl. He's broke, he's frightened, and he's set on a journey from which he can't back out.
The cinematography, by the great Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar last year for his work on Gravity), has been devised so that the movie looks like one long, seamless take, following characters through the warren of hallways and back rooms at the St. James Theatre and out onto the stage or the crowded Times Square street. It's a marvel of technical achievement that, along with the jazzy drum score by Antonio Sanchez, gives the film the unstoppable momentum of a downhill skier who's committed to reaching the bottom of the mountain, whether it's on his face or still standing.
Rather than joining scenes the usual way, with cuts, Birdman refuses to blink, fluidly switching its rapt gaze between characters, observing a tête-à-tête between leading ladies Lesley (Watts) and Laura (Riseborough) before they're interrupted by the unpredictable Mike (Norton), Lesley's current or maybe former lover, who it then follows up the stairs to the roof for a chance meeting with Sam (Stone). There's enough teeming activity going on that it never sags. And into this nonstop action it folds its touches of magical realism, which build with Riggan's instability, until he's summoning explosions with a snap of his fingers and taking flight above an indifferent city.
Riggan may be teetering on the edge of a breakdown, but the film never loses its sense of humor or playfulness. It's a brilliant portrait of actors in all their dysfunction, self-regard, fragility, and capability, never more so than with Mike, who arrives, blows the roof off an impromptu rehearsal with Riggan, then immediately destroys the preview performance by insisting he drink real gin during a scene for the sake of authenticity. "Why don't I have any self-respect?!" Lesley bemoans of her relationship to him. "You're an actress, honey," Laura answers, without losing a beat.
Riggan may not have that excuse. "You're no actor, you're a celebrity," sneers Tabitha (Duncan), the New York Times' theater critic (and as the lone character to be left out of the movie's bubble of empathy, its only real sour note). She's spotted his weak point, one his daughter Sam also prods out in a moment of frustration — Riggan has retreated to the stage, and to a play based on a beloved story by an acclaimed author about real people having real dramas, because these are things that announce his artistic relevance. But he has no idea if he'll pull it off, and Birdman cycles through some hilarious variations on theatrical disaster, including a panic dream come to life that's too good to spoil.
Birdman fizzles along exuberantly, but it also has a precisely layered structure that's in no way accidental. Mentions of Icarus echo the winged superhero Riggan became famous for playing. Keaton himself, who's indeed terrific in the role, had his own stint in a cape and cowl several decades earlier, and his Birdman role is the very career rejuvenating moment his character is trying to create for himself. The movie dives into questions of art and fame and the connection between the two and whether the best art demands destruction, but it also punctures its own grandiosity before it can ever get out of control. When a character stands on the edge of a roof as if poised to jump, for instance, a woman yells, with no great concern, "Hey, is this for real or are you shooting a film?" Like a sprawling Robert Altman ensemble film or Federico Fellini's 8½, with which it could be shelved in some holdout video store some day, Birdman's bursting with too much life to be constrained by its themes. It feels big in a way that has nothing to do with fantastical armies in array or giant explosions, and that's enough to make you fall back in love with the movies all over again.