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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.


And then there are those superpowers. Or are there? Once again, the film is coy here. They're sort of a metaphor, Thomson's inner vanity exerting itself. But they're shown literally. He rises into the air, soaring over the heads of the ignorant people below. But when he arrives at the theatre, a cab driver chases him inside in search of his payment. Telekinetic powers only reveal themselves in the solitude of his dressing room. And yet, Sam, the one person who could possibly know about his powers, is also the only one to see their eventual evidence, and react to it. So it's unclear, where the film is trying to go with this. A metaphor made reality? Mental illness? Still, it's an unexpectedly powerful representation, and a clever counter to Shiner's very real, raw, sexualized vanities.In the end, Birdman says as much about acting as it does about those who do so. It's a commentary on identity, on failings personal—one heavy scene has Sam angrily shouting at her father all of his failings, committed back when he was still a celebrity and thus, too busy to make timer for her—and professional—this play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, written, directed, and starred in by Thomson himself, is his last-ditch effort to, as his daughter brutally phrases it, "make him relevant again"—and those mired in both. Identity politics, especially in the world of showbiz, come down to what Shiner so succinctly puts as: "Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige"

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