Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brilliantly ripe if occasionally overexcited black comedy, alternatively titled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” tells the story of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a profoundly insecure former Hollywood superhero (“Birdman”) now determined to stage a Broadway version of American writer Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He must deal with money woes, a bickering cast (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough), a manic best friend and producer (Zach Galifianakis), a former drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), and above all his own wildly unsettled, surreally inclined personality, which underneath the jerky veneer of narrative tangling is the movie’s true star. That sense of surrealism, kin to madness, features a crouching, gargoyle-like vision of the Birdman character he once was, a rudely-beaked and streetwise figure who insists, “Without me, all that’s left is you…” Problem is, Riggan wants more than anything else to disown that “you” (or so he thinks) and trade up to artistic accomplishment. That places Iñárritu’s story in the “I could have been a contender” vein of American myth. Riggan is a decent man but a marginal actor who seeks an elite legacy in an age in which celebrity power and crass trends are busy gnawing away at what’s left of the distinction between world and stage, may Twitter be its witness.
As the increasingly sunken Riggan wrestles with dubious identity and waning self-esteem, those in his orbit — ex-wife, daughter, actors (Norton as the most manic) and critics — prowl the lunatic theatrical corridors spewing sarcasm, self-deprecation, gossip and vanity. All involved put in bravura turns, particularly Stone as Riggan’s daughter Sam, and Iñárritu’s punctuates the action with an all-drum score whose repetitious rumblings sound like a feral requiem in the making. Lindsay Duncan’s brief appearance as a self-righteous New York theater critic who tussles with Riggan in a bar adds fuel to the talking fire: “I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art.”
Iñárritu’s resurrected Keaton is superlative, seamlessly merging bad camp with moments of devastating and defeated sincerity, his weariness increasingly and sweetly palpable, his unexpected virtue just that. Then again, he was also the first big-screen “Batman” (1989), all but shelved by Hollywood soon thereafter, so the Riggan template is familiar territory. And for a time — maybe for all time — Riggan can actually fly.