A middle-aged man, clad only in his briefs, meditates, levitating three feet above the floor. Thus begins Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), telling us very clearly from the start: something is not quite right. In fact, something is extremely not right. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood has-been, once the star of the lucrative Birdman superhero franchise. Now, he struggles to keep his Broadway play afloat, or even to find decent actors to fill its roles. Mocked by the voice of Birdman himself, emanating from the poster of his glory days on his dressing room wall, Thomson struggles to find within himself the power to make do with his life and move forward with his goals.
Instead, he finds within himself a deeper, more ominous power—superpowers. Perhaps. The beauty of Birdman is its relationship with reality and perception, a teasing jump between what is real and what is not. It makes the audience question what the boundaries of realism are. A film about a play, and about the behind-the-scenes of the play, many shots jump between real and staged, from one afternoon to the next morning, without warning. The soundtrack, a powerful drum-led backdrop, is sometimes melded with the world of the film itself, such as when Thomson walks by a street performer in Times Square beating out the very rhythm he walks to. The cinematography, too, aids this fluid reality, relying more on traveling than on cutting to move from scene to scene, as if shot in one continuous take. We see the back of Thomson's head a surprising amount, following him as he moves around the back of the theatre. This places us directly in the world of the film, so it's jarring when a door opens only to reveal, as Thomson walks through it, that the scene has suddenly moved forward three hours.
The colorful supporting cast doesn't exactly dispel the strangeness of the Birdman environment. Emma Stone is Thomson's daughter Sam, fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant. She is biting and witty, evidently the child of a former celebrity, but her dry voice works wonders jumping from sarcastic self-deprecation to open, unmoored uncertainty. Playing against her self-doubts, and her father's, is Edward Norton as Mike Shiner, a Broadway buff whose name alone draws in crowds. He is the artiste of the bunch, a puffed-up, arrogant actor who believes that his vision is more important than anyone else's. The thing is, he's often right. His suggestions do indeed improve Thomson's play. But they come with his sexual advances mid-scene, his running off-script, and his general self-important attitude. Yet somehow, Norton makes him likeable—at least as a character, if not as a person. It's hard not to want to watch him act, or act acting, as mired in meta-layers as this film is. And minor turns by ZachGalifianakis as Thomson's long-suffering manager injects much of the humor (aside from what is produced by Shiner's buffoonery) into this dark comedy.