The meta element in Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film is perhaps its most provocative. It's impossible, for example, to watch this film about a sixtysomething movie star who made his fortune playing a superhero named Birdman a quarter century earlier and not assume the role was written for star Michael Keaton — who's 63 and made his fortune playing Batman a quarter century earlier.
If any other human being played the role, this wouldn't be the same film. Birdman is Batman. Fictional actor Riggan Thomson is Michael Keaton repurposed for Iñárritu's trippy show-biz satire. So it had to have been written for him, right?
Wrong. Birdman is one of the most accidental masterworks in movie history. Here's the scoop: In the midst of a confessed midlife crisis, Iñárritu wrote a screenplay about a film artist coming to grips with his legacy and resolving to cut the crap and take a self-redeeming stab at art. The thing is, its main character was a washed-up director — not an actor.
The self-reference is clear. Few critics will come right out and say so, but Mexican-born Iñárritu has been responsible for some of the most pretentious, intellectually fallow cinema of our time. Keep a straight face and tell me you yearn to sit through 21 Grams, Babel or Biutiful again.
In short, if not for an "aha" moment, some serious rewriting and a dinner with Keaton, Birdman wouldn't be among the hottest topics in this year's Oscar conversation. Now you know. Doesn't that feel better?
And its place in the conversation is well deserved. I can't think of a movie with as much to say about the warped symbiosis between show business and society — Scorsese's The King of Comedy included. Keaton's all frazzled nerves and bruised ego as Thomson, a has-been gambling his fortune and future on an unlikely comeback. In a last-ditch legitimacy grab, he's mounted a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. He's writer, director and star.
The movie chronicles the chaos leading up to opening night. To heighten the tension, Iñárritu filmed the picture using a technique that creates the illusion of one continuous two-hour shot, a miracle of choreography from Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. It's set against a propulsive jazz drum soundtrack that suggests the racing hearts of the production's increasingly frantic players. (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone are among them, all tip-top.)
Thomson is haunted throughout by self-doubt, by parental regret and, most significantly, by the specter of Birdman himself. The character shadows him on the street, mocking Thomson's need to prove himself an artist and tempting him with the easy millions to be made by simply saying yes to Birdman 4.
The picture is a stylistically fearless rush, surreal one moment and satirical the next, but never for a second dull, showy or overreaching. I haven't seen a film this year with half as much to say about what it means to be an artist, much less the nerve to ask whether art even matters anymore in a world where comic-book movies and movies about giant toys can generate more money than some nations' entire economies.
Then there's the profound poignancy of Keaton's performance. His, after all, was the cowled face that launched a thousand superhero franchises and changed the world of entertainment, a world that has largely passed him by since he passed on Batman No. 3. Riggan Thomson is literally the role of a lifetime. Keaton's lifetime. Who understands better what happens when you don't say yes to Batman Forever?