VENICE - Truth or dare? This is a game played by two characters in magnificently acidic metatextual comedy "Birdman." It's also the film as a three-word question. Truth or dare? Real stage actor or star? You can have your artistic integrity, or you can have a hit. You can go Method, or you can really fly. You can be Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), or you can be Birdman (Riggan Thomson). Initially, "Birdman" poses as a trenchant critique of the seemingly endless parade of men in capes that is the summer blockbuster season (Michael Fassbender and Robert Downey Jr. are name-checked as fine actors currently otherwise occupied), but it's actually rather more nuanced than that.
The values of the sober-minded art espoused by a poisonous critic (Lindsay Duncan) and the untrustworthy joys of escapist cinema are both probed and prodded in this film. It's impossible for a film featuring the nightmare creation of stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) - whose hilarious awfulness is signposted before he even opens his mouth by a fedora that is the millinery equivalent of a dick move - to be entirely on the side of capital T truth and capital A art. "Birdman" dares to be ambiguous, but unlike most essays in ambiguity, it is also a hell of a lot of fun.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (as the director now styles himself) feels like such a permanent fixture on the festival circuit, it's almost hard to believe that the career-to-date highpoint of "Birdman" is only his fifth feature. Ever since making a splashy debut with Cannes Critics' Week winner "Amores Perros", the multi-talented, self-made Mexican (prior to directing, he achieved fame in his home country as a radio host, journalist and composer) has premiered a feature at either Cannes or Venice every three or four years.
"Birdman" (or "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" - the alternate title resolves satisfyingly in the film) proves to be a sparkling tonic to his life-is-hideous trilogy ("21 Grams", "Babel" and "Biutiful") containing a bitter shot of gin, calculated to give industry egos a knowing but energizing kick in the pants.
It's also a technically superlative exercise (as was last year's Venice opener "Gravity"). The much-vaunted single-take effect achieved by DP Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione (with a couple of exceptions the film appears to play without cuts) is not a gimmick, but a storytelling technique that achieves an arguably superior effect to that realized by Alfred Hitchcock in "Rope." Where "Rope's" apparent single take ended up feeling a little stagy, as if the original play was being filmed live, "Birdman" is alive in every frame - the effect is of staying up several days in a row, watching the sunrise and carrying on, events slurring together with strung-out nervous energy. And that's exactly where Riggan Thomson's head is at.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan in an astonishingly good performance. Not washed up exactly (he can afford to stage a vanity project of dubious financial wisdom), Riggan's got creative ennui and a love-hate relationship with the alter ego that made him a success: Birdman. We don't ever find out all that much about Birdman; we don't need to. He's got a deep, critical voice, which talks to Riggan constantly. He's the linchpin of a superhero franchise from before superhero franchises were fashionable. We also know that Riggan said no to "Birdman 4." Sure, he's kind of Batman, but we don't need that to be said (more on the intersection of Keaton's career with his role here in a bit). Riggan has alienated his family and surrounded himself with "yes" men, with the dubious exception of his daughter (Emma Stone), hired as his PA after a stint in rehab. When he casts Mike Shiner (Norton) in his own vainglorious adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," he opens himself up to a nightmare of insecurity and ego.
"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is short, even for a short story (in my edition it runs to all of 17 pages). Written in the first person, a man named Nick tells us about sitting around a table, getting drunk with his partner Laura and another couple, Terri and Mel. The four discuss what love means to them...and that's it. Of particular note are the recollections of Terri, who describes how she was once loved by Ed, a wild man who tried to shoot her and her new lover (now husband) Mel. The idea of turning Carver's shabbily elegant philosophical shrug of a story into full-blown theater is in itself comic - generous invention or interpretation will be required to fill out the run-time.
The climactic scene of Riggan's attempt to realize Carver's work for Broadway is apparently a dramatization of Terri's story about her ex. Terri, played by Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Mel, played by Mike (Edward Norton), are interrupted at a motel by Ed, played by Riggan in a double role - earlier in the play he inhabited the skin of Nick, the short story's all-seeing "I."
Not content with inserting himself into a visualization of the other couple's past, we've also seen him perform a beautiful opening scene monologue stolen wholesale from another character; in the Carver, a moving anecdote about an old couple in love belongs to Mel. You don't need to know the original story to see what's going on here or grasp how remorselessly Riggan is placing himself front and center. Hell, you don't even need to see his play: it's all right there on the theater billboards - a flattering black and white shot of Riggan with none of the other actors in the four-hander to be seen.