So exhilarating it can be exhausting, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is a film that challenges, surprises and dazzles while still working at the edges of a frazzled mind.

That mind would belong to Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a movie star who long ago played a superhero character named Birdman to international acclaim before walking away from the franchise. Now he’s written an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that he’s staging on Broadway, directing himself as the star, trying to reignite his career and validate his work.

The idea of casting Keaton in the role is as brilliant as it is obvious, Keaton having been the original Batman before he walked away from the franchise. Keaton was never as desperate as Riggan — he just sort of wandered away from the Hollywood hustle for years — but there’s no denying this is a prime comeback opportunity, and he takes full advantage of it, delivering a rich performance that’s both comic and poignant.

Still, a meta-casting trick and fine star turn do not necessarily guarantee a good movie. Luckily, “Birdman” has all its parts going at full speed.

A superb supporting cast clicks perfectly, and that’s lucky because director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams”) and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (he won an Oscar for “Gravity”) have made the film a series of long, mesmerizing choreographed tracking shots in which the actors come and go. One missed beat and the shot crumbles, and the high anxiety of that pressure seems to have brought out the best in all involved.

The result is a cinematic experience that never seems to stop flowing, with the viewer giddily caught up in the current. Scenes stretch on and seem to effortlessly blend into one another. Life never stops in this movie.

And such a life it is. We first find Riggan in his underwear, meditating, floating above his dressing room floor, setting the stage for the film’s magical realism dilemma: Is Riggan so delusional he thinks he actually has the powers of Birdman (whose voice regularly chastises him), or are these powers actually real?

There’s little time to ponder that because Riggan has so many practical concerns. For one, his male co-star isn’t working out, so one of the female stars, Lesley (Naomi Watts), suggests her temperamental but brilliant boyfriend, Mike (Edward Norton, a likely Oscar nominee), a name star who’ll sell tickets but whose antagonizing personality threatens to destroy the production.

And then there’s the play’s other actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who happens to be Riggan’s lover and also happens to think she’s pregnant. And, of course, Riggan’s grounded ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), drops by for a visit.

But Sylvia isn’t really there to see Riggan, she’s there to see their daughter, Sam (Emma Stone, another likely Oscar nominee), just out of rehab and working as Riggan’s complaining assistant. And constantly fretting over everything financial and personal is Riggan’s best friend and manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis).

All these characters come together in a let’s-put-on-a-play story laced with assorted insecurities, self-loathing and delusions. “Birdman” pointedly tackles issues of self-worth, of legacy, of artistic intent and identity with stunning visual flair and imagination while never forgetting to be enjoyable.

Can Riggan really fly? Can any of us? “Birdman” doesn’t offer the answer, but revels in the question. Soar with it.

‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’


Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence

Running time: 119 minutes

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (R ) Michael Keaton shines in this visually inventive, perfectly cast dark comedy about a movie star who once played a superhero attempting a comeback on Broadway. Major Oscar contender. (119 minutes) GRADE: A

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