When we first see Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) in “Birdman,” the Hollywood star-turned-Broadway wannabe is meditating in his dressing room. He’s wearing tighty-whities, his back is to us, and he’s levitating cross-legged several feet above the floor.
That’s a fair summation of the movie too. “Birdman” — full title “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” for reasons that become sort of, kind of, all right, not really clear — is a jaw-dropping stylistic wow that spins, pirouettes, turns inside out, and miraculously stays aloft for two hours. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous movies (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams, “Babel,” “Biutiful”) have been dazzlers, too, but weighed down with philosophical concerns that can turn pompous. “Birdman” finds Iñárritu in the mood for play, and with a mighty cast that fields every pitch he throws.
It’s a backstage drama — correction: It’s a backstage middle-aged male freakout comedy-drama and, as such, possibly a guy’s answer to the anxieties of “All About Eve.” Riggan is an LA superstar best known for the superhero blockbuster “Birdman,” but that was well over a decade ago and he’s starting to look like — well, Michael Keaton several decades on from “Batman.” The movie winks in that direction and then gets down to business. To prove his ongoing cultural worth and artistic depth, Riggan has written and is starring in a theatrical adaptation of Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” — exactly the sort of cred-heavy overreach that might tempt a fatuous Hollywood has-been.
Opening night is coming up and things are not going well. One of the actors (Jeremy Shamos) has just been conked by a falling light, and his replacement is a bad-boy thespian named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) — think Ryan Gosling with added Brando pretensions and one or two screws loose. Mike interrupts preview performances by breaking character or by sporting an erection, and the Twitter-sphere starts to boil with a must-see disaster in the making. Riggan worries that his chance for redemption is slipping away.
Nor is that the only farce unfolding behind the footlights. One of the actresses, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is crippled by doubts as her Broadway debut nears, and her relationship with Mike is heading south. The other actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), may be carrying Riggan’s baby. The star’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is just out of rehab and not happy to be working as dad’s gopher. Levelheaded producer-best friend Jake tries to hold them all together; in an inspired casting touch, Zach Galifianakis is low-key and charming as the production’s one voice of sanity. Oh, and Birdman himself shadows Riggan as the costumed devil on the star’s shoulder, whispering growly reminders that the stage is for weenies and the real respect is out west.
Working from a garrulous, endlessly quotable script by himself, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, Iñárritu shoots for the moon in “Birdman.” The camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) is conceived as one long tracking shot that through digital trickery traverses the days leading up to opening night — Riggan will step out of frame to the left, the camera will pan right and pick him up in rehearsal several hours later. The sensation is of a hectic rush to a scheduled execution, the players dashing around each other in the rat’s maze of the theater.
Occasionally we’ll climb the stairs to a rooftop overlooking Broadway, as Sam and Mike spar cynically and then earnestly with each other. Sometimes we’ll dodge into a neighboring bar so Riggan can drown his sorrows or tell a powerful drama critic (Lindsay Duncan) what every actor has always wanted to say to the idiots who write about them. (I took notes.) Once, we race around the block in a paralyzing version of The Actor’s Nightmare: no dialogue, next to no clothes, and an audience armed with cellphone cams.
Every so often the movie flies up into the nighttime skies, and whether Riggan is actually soaring or his mental state has finally come unglued is moot. “Birdman” asks everything of Michael Keaton and he delivers; this antic sprite of the movies, once so untamed in “Beetlejuice” and “Mr. Mom,” then lost to sight behind the latex crust of Batman, reclaims his demon here, and he’s like an aging Puck facing down his mortality. It’s a performance that’s splenetic, poetic, dangerous, funny, and refreshingly vanity-free, at the same time insisting that vanity is the motor that gets a performer out of bed every morning.
“Birdman” is such a three-ring circus of delights, in fact, that what it’s all about threatens to get lost. It helps to be a middle-age man oneself, I think — all right, I’m projecting — but the desperation that fuels Riggan is an outsize variation on the fears many people have, at a certain stage in their lives, that the best days might be past, that the great work remains undone, that the world has moved on and the curtain call is at hand. It’s about The End and, ironically, the movie itself isn’t sure what to do about that. The final image is the film’s one duff note, a shrug rather than a resolution.
Resolution isn’t the point: The battle to stay alive and relevant is — to oneself if no one else. “Birdman” is a working testament to the beauties and necessity of craft, whether it’s an actor working out the nitty-gritty of a role or a filmmaker using every weapon in his arsenal to create a magnificent, multi-layered work of artifice. To live is to make it up on a daily basis, out of equal parts inspiration and panic. The show must go on. In “Birdman,” it goes gloriously on.
More movies coverage:
Every so often the stars and release schedules align for a bumper crop of exceptional movies. This week is one of those happy occasions:
• 4 stars: ‘Whiplash’ creates a relentless tempo
• 3.5 stars: ‘Dear White People’ addresses race with humor
• Four-star reviews by the Globe
• 25 years after ‘Batman,’ Keaton takes flight again in ‘Birdman’
• ‘Birdman’ director explains creative approach
• More new and current releases
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.