- - Thursday, October 23, 2014

‘Birdman” is not a superhero movie, exactly — its pretentious parenthetical subtitle, “or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” gives that away — but it sometimes seems to have been created via superhuman effort.

Director Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu’s whirling, vertiginous film was shot and edited to appear as if it is the product of a single, perfectly orchestrated, hours-long take. The effect is awe-inspiring and tension-building; at times, it’s practically heroic — the big-screen equivalent of watching someone swim a mile without taking a breath.

The shot only seems to be continuous, of course; quick pans, computer-generated zooms through impossibly tiny spaces, and movement through dark corners mask the occasional cuts. Nor is it the first movie to attempt a single-shot effect: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller “Rope” relied analog-era versions of the same tricks.

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But it is executed at a scale that is arguably unmatched. It’s one of the most impressive and technically ambitious cinematic feats I’ve ever witnessed.

Mr. Irritu’s stylistic acrobatics could easily have come across as gimmicky, but he cleverly melds the technical approach with the subject matter.

“Birdman” follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a once-powerful movie star known for his role as the film’s titular superhero. He was a man ahead of his time — but in the age of superhero movies, he’s become a man behind it. Yet he still has something to prove. So he writes, directs, and stars in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, all the while listening to, and fighting with, his inner monologue, here represented by the character of Birdman, who occasionally appears to torment him with doubt and anxiety.

The movie flirts with surrealism and magical realism, sometimes detouring into daydreams and fantasies that recall Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” Occasionally, the script strains its metaphors too far, especially where the staging of the play is concerned (the subtitle is not the movie’s only pretension).

But the uniformly excellent and frequently funny cast never becomes bogged down by the script’s mood or metaphors. The main characters are the play’s actors and producers: Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter and assistant; Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his best friend and producer; Lesley (Naomi Watts), a co-star who helps recruit her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), a last-minute casting replacement and acting rival.

The film takes place almost entirely in and around the theater during the play’s preview run (portions of it were shot in the actual St. James Theatre on Broadway), and the long takes — most individual scenes rely on a single, unbroken shot — give the movie a loose, actorly theatricality. The scenes become face-offs and showdowns, not only between the characters, but between the performers themselves, each vying for dramatic control of the scenes.

Mr. Keaton, the former “Batman” actor who reportedly turned down a $15 million payday when he quit the pioneering superhero series, remains a quirky, chaotic presence — a man of secrets and wit whose rage at the surrounding world is often indistinguishable from his private amusement. Mr. Norton, who once played “The Incredible Hulk,” is enjoyably over-the-top as a truth-obsessed, self-indulgent theater snob. These are film actors playing stage actors, and the performances walk a fine line between understated cinematic realism and knowing, stage-ready histrionics.

But Mr. Irritu’s showy formal pyrotechnics are the clear star of this show about a show. This is a movie made to impress, and it does.

Three and a half stars


TITLE: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

CREDITS: Directed by Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu; screenplay by Mr. Gonzlez Irritu, Nicols Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo

RATING: R for language and sexuality

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes


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