Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in BirdmanBIRDMAN

Hands-down the most technically audacious backstage farce ever attempted, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman finds its director in a cheeky, playful frame of mind. The movie's many miracles pretty much start right there, because who knew that Iñárritu was even capable of a cheeky, playful frame of mind?

For all the acclaim the Oscar-nominated filmmaker has received, Iñárritu is also, generally speaking, a bit of a critical punching bag. From 2000's Amores Perros to 2010's Biutiful, with 21 Grams and Babel sandwiched in between, his movies are widely considered hypnotically bleak but largely soulless contraptions - exquisitely crafted downers with narratives of such contrived fatalism that they leave no room for spontaneity, warmth, or humor. (Personally speaking, I admire Iñárritu's filmography, but have felt no desire to see any of his works more than once.) Yet while you can recognize Iñárritu's superb craftsmanship and undeniable prowess with actors, almost nothing about the man's fifth feature film - a brilliantly meta-tragicomedy that's close to being two hours of solid fun - suggests that he's the same guy who put Naomi Watts' grieving mom through such agonizing hell in 21 Grams. Instead, in Birdman, he gives Watts zippy banter, a pat on the back from Michael Keaton, and a make-out scene with Andrea Riseborough. Is it my imagination, or has Iñárritu mellowed a tad?

If so, let's pray it's a permanent change, because the director's latest (which he co-wrote with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo) is so terrific that it nearly leaves you dizzy imagining what Iñárritu could accomplish if his primary interest were in giving audiences a good time. Birdman, whose full title is formally Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), stars Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a former A-lister famed for his title character in a series of wildly successful superhero movies. (All associations between Thomson-as-Birdman and Keaton-as-Batman are entirely intentional, as is, probably, Iñárritu's employment of one-time Incredible Hulk Edward Norton and two-time Gwen Stacy Emma Stone.) Now middle-aged and decidedly B-list, Thomson hopes to regain his cred by writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Walk About When We Talk About Love for Broadway. But it's a career risk that seems to have "disaster" written all over it, especially after an errant stage light drops from the ceiling during rehearsal, conking one of the play's leads (Jeremy Shamos) on the head and requiring an immediate change in casting.

But did that light plummet accidentally? Thomson doesn't think so, telling his best friend and the show's producer (Zach Galifianakis) that he telepathically willed the stage instrument to fall. (The hammy actor who got beaned was murdering Carver's dialogue.) And we did, indeed, see Thomson staring at the light right before its descent, just as we saw him, at the movie's start, sitting in the lotus position while floating mid-air. Consequently, the question of "Does Riggan Thomson actually possess super powers?" runs throughout Birdman, but it's only one of many tantalizingly juicy questions addressed throughout this thrilling entertainment, which emerges as a sort of Marvel blockbuster for theatre majors.

Will Thomson be professionally overshadowed by replacement co-star Mike Shiner, whose intensity and Method-like commitment have made him an acting icon in New York? (Comparably, you at first wonder if Keaton will be overshadowed by Norton, who fills Shiner with blisteringly hilarious, perfectly justified confidence.) Will Thomson earn the respect of his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (a feral, stunning Stone) and the numerous other women - among them castmates portrayed by Watts and Riseborough (both excellent) and an ex-wife heartrendingly played by Amy Ryan - swirling in and out of his dressing room? Will the show be in any kind of presentational shape come opening night? Even if it is, will it be immediately savaged by the bitter New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) who tells Thomson, prior to attending his opus, "I'm going to kill your play"? And will Thomson ever embrace his inner Birdman - the gravelly voice in his head who eventually becomes an outer Birdman, flanking Thomson on neighborhood sidewalks in a winged Spandex suit with metallic feathers?

Michael Keaton and Emma Stone in BirdmanOh, and one other question lingers throughout Iñárritu's movie: Are we ever gonna see a cut? Photographed by the masterful cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki - who had some practice for the feat in Gravity - and edited by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, Birdman has been designed to look like one continuous shot from opening to end credits, an exhilarating piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand all the more impressive for being so frequently unobtrusive. (As the narrative doesn't unspool in real time, it's clear where the edits are happening, but the effect is so smooth, and the actors are so strong in takes that last several minutes, that it never threatens to become the film's sole talking point.) I'm not sure that, thematically, this approach "means" anything; Lubezki's camera routinely lands on characters having conversations that Thomson isn't privy to, so it's not like we're meant to take the faux single take as any kind of first-person chronicling of events. In truth, I'm not sure that anything in Birdman "means" anything. Iñárritu and company clearly have ideas about the fleeting nature of fame, and celebrity in the viral age, and the hollowness of lives lived primarily in public. But for once, Iñárritu doesn't let his messages overpower his material. Birdman is phenomenal, and surprising, partly because of the welcome tact with which he delivers his traditional Statements. Iñárritu lets the film's big emotional moments - such as Stone's incensed tirade against her techno-phobe dad - land and then casually drift away, with the director happily moving on to greener pastures.

All told, there may be a bit too much drifting. Beautifully played though they are, I would've appreciated some trimming of the scenes between Stone and Norton, whose characters' quasi-romance is never really convincing. (I'm glad, though, that I didn't have to miss Sam denigrating Mike's overly earnest pick-me-up speech by saying, "That was, like, Oprah, Hallmark, R. Kelly kind of bad.") And once we get to the film's final third, Thomson's crisis of the soul is perhaps dragged out longer than necessary; Keaton appears to reach a natural performance/character high about 15 minutes before events finally reach their collective climax, and is consequently forced to repeat himself, and his admittedly funny Birdman growl, to the brink of our losing interest in him. Very, very few film comedies (or stage comedies, for that matter) need to run 120 minutes, which I hope Iñárritu remembers the next time he tackles one.

Please let him tackle one, because this first stab suggests that he may have a spectacular talent for them. Iñárritu's slapstick choreography, particularly when Thomson uses his "telekinetic powers" to trash his dressing room, is constantly first-rate, and his pacing - propelled by Antonio Sanchez's dynamic, all-percussion score - is mostly superb. He also shows an intuitive knack for eliciting performances that lend humanity to potential caricatures; Iñárritu does some of his finest work here with the believably befuddled and empathetic Galifianakis, whose hopelessly out-of-his-element producer doesn't know Jeremy Renner by name and pronounces a legendary director's name as "Martin Scor-seize." Meanwhile, theatre majors (such as myself) will likely be knocked sideways by the script's near-endless parade of references, observations, and familiar types, with anyone remotely connected to stage life likely to howl at Mike's sneering assessment of preview audiences as people "who pay half-price to watch us rehearse." (Theatre majors or not, however, everyone at my screening cackled when Watts' neurotic sobbed, "Why don't I have any self-respect?!", and a sympathetic Riseborough cooed, "You're an actress, honey.")

And then there's Michael Keaton. His performance can't accurately be called a comeback, because the actor never really left; he just became less prolific in smaller roles. (Which, in Hollywood, might be the same as gone.) But he's absolutely glorious in Birdman, so feverish and hilarious and moving after so many years unseen as a leading man that you tend to watch him with both awe and gratitude. Watch him, especially, when the Carver drama is in previews, with Keaton-as-Thomson acting just stiffly enough to suggest the folly of his endeavor, and just sincerely enough to suggest that, performing for a house of Birdman fans, Thomson night actually get away with it. It's intensely tricky, beautifully calibrated work in a performance, and a movie, that makes all of its work look like deliriously enjoyable play.

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