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Michael Keaton plays a washed-up actor known for his superhero roles who tries to reinvent himself by writing, directing, and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. When one of the leads has to leave the play unexpectedly, a hotshot, temperamental actor (Edward Norton) steps into the role. This, along with all the various drama going on in Keaton’s life (like hearing the voice of his superhero alter ego constantly in his head), pushes him to the brink of madness.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a ballsy, flashy, exhilarating motion picture experience for about 2/3 of its running time. In the end, it embellishes too many of the goofier aspects of the story (like Keaton’s ability to fly… don’t ask) and sort of loses its way. However, for about the first 90 minutes, it’s dynamite stuff.

This is a film about art, or perhaps more to the point, the passion that drives artists. It mostly takes place in the small theater where Keaton and his company are putting on the play. More time is spent on what’s going on behind the scenes than on the play itself though. This is a movie mostly set in hallways, staircases, and dressing rooms. Even when the characters aren’t on stage, their actions and dialogue still have a very theatrical verve to them.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s camerawork is constantly moving throughout and done in such a way that the whole film feels like it was filmed in one take (kind of like Rope). This adds to the overall theatricality of the film immensely. This could’ve been a showy device, but the camerawork is so good that it becomes an organic part of the movie. Heck, just seeing some of Inarritu’s transition scenes is fun.

The camerawork is inventive and impressive from a technical standpoint, but it’s crucial to the narrative. Because the camera in often following the characters in close quarters, it gives the audience the impression of being under their skin. If they have a fight with someone and the other person storms out of the room, the camera is still in there with them so we can really see the pain, rejection, and anguish they walk around with. Most movies would cut away to the next scene. Here, we get to hang around a little bit longer with the characters before the camera finds someone else to follow, which is pretty damn cool.

The cast is great. Keaton is terrific (and perfectly cast given his Batman experience), but it is Edward Norton who steals the movie. He’s simply awesome as the needy, selfish prima donna co-star. Naomi Watts is also very good as Norton’s girlfriend (and co-star), as is Emma Stone, who plays Keaton’s daughter.

Birdman is quite a lot of fun most of the time. It’s only when it takes its main character flights of fancy literally that it stumbles. The ambiguous ending doesn’t do it any favors either, but there is still enough energy and electric performances here for two movies.

AKA: Birdman.

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