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'Birdman' Tracks A Comeback In (Seemingly) One Long Take

In Birdman, Michael Keaton (a real-life former Batman) plays a former movie superhero who's trying to get a grasp on his career. (Atsushi Nishijima/ Fox Searchlight)

Birdman's opening shot has a meteor flaring across a twilit sky — a dying star falling to earth being an apt first image for a movie about a film superhero who has flamed out.

The next shot shows what's happened to him: ex-Birdman Riggan Thomson (played by ex-Batman Michael Keaton) facing away from the camera in yoga position in his dressing room at Broadway's St. James Theater. As Riggan attempts a comeback on stage, director Alejandro Iñárritu's camera will follow him, seemingly without a single edit for almost two hours, a stunt we'll come back to. But first, let's note one odd thing about the way Riggan is sitting. He is floating in lotus position, about 3 feet off the ground. One other oddity: In his head he hears his own accusing voice, amplified the way it was decades earlier when he was Birdman.

"How did we end up here?" the voice growls. "This place is horrible. Smells like balls. You were a movie star, remember?"

Now, with the last bit of cash from that stardom, Riggan is producing his own Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," directed by and starring himself. It's what's known in the trade as a vanity production — his possibly pregnant girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) is in it, his stoner daughter (Emma Stone) is his personal assistant, his very nervous best friend (Zack Galifianakis) is stage manager. And after a — um, let's go with "lucky" backstage accident, it's a vanity production minus one co-star.

Happily, a stage star who's just quit/been fired from another gig is almost literally waiting in the wings, having helped his girlfriend (Naomi Watts) learn her lines. And while he comes with his own baggage — where the original co-star couldn't express emotions, Mike is constantly exploding — the play starts previews tomorrow, so what the hell.

This guy is played by Edward Norton, who is also an ex-superhero in real life (his Hulk, remember, had explosion issues), and the celebrity in-jokes don't end with the casting. Keaton recounts a nightmare in which he's upstaged at his own funeral by (wink, wink) George Clooney, and there are savagely funny swipes at critics, in-the-know observations about the price of fame, not to mention a nifty literary riff on that Carver short story Riggan has supposedly adapted for the stage, but that's actually taking over his life. Read it before you go, and you'll marvel at the film's intricate plotting.

All part of the entertainingly complicated jigsaw puzzle Iñárritu has made of Birdman. His full title is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), but rest assured, the more you know, the more fun it'll be — all real-life connections fodder for other connections as the film shreds time, fame, family and the difference between movie acting and stage acting. That one-continuous-tracking shot conceit is designed to split the difference, forcing the actors to play through long stretches — no cuts to protect them — as the camera zips after them down hallways, into theaters empty and full, and, at one deliriously funny point, out into a Times Square mobbed with celebrity-chasers. But it's also a stupendously choreographed bit of camerawork, demanding not just for actors who must've been forever ducking into closets and behind furniture, but also for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the miracle worker who designed those breath-catchingly lengthy tracking shots in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, and who figured out how to open Gravity with a 14-minute tour-de-force single take in outer space.

Doing a whole movie this way isn't unprecedented, of course. Hitchcock's Rope did it without digital trickery more than half a century ago. Still, it's a great cinematic stunt, even when you think you've found the hidden edits. And it makes Birdman as exhilarating a flight of fantasy as you're likely to see anytime soon.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The movie "Birdman," which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, is about an actor once famous for playing a superhero, an actor who's had a long dry spell and is now trying for a comeback. It stars Michael Keaton, once famous for playing Batman, who has himself had a long dry spell. So will "Birdman" be his comeback? We asked our movie critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A meteor flares across a twilit sky, a dying star falling to earth - a nice first image for a movie about a film superhero who's flamed out. The next shot is of ex-Birdman Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, sitting in yoga position in a Broadway dressing room. As he attempts a comeback on stage, director Alejandro Inarritu's camera will follow him seemingly without a single edit for almost two hours. We'll come back to that.

But first, let's note one odd thing about the way Riggan is sitting. He is floating in lotus position about three feet off the ground. One other oddity - in his head, he hears his own accusing voice amplified the way it was decades earlier when he was Birdman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) How did we end up here in this dump? You were a movie star, remember?

MONDELLO: Now with the last bit of cash from that stardom, he's producing his own Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story directed by and starring himself. It's what's known in the trade as a vanity production. And after a backstage accident, his stage manager points out it's a vanity production minus one co-star.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")

ZACK GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Our perfect dream actor is not going to knock on that door and go, hey, fellas, when do I start?

(KNOCKING)

NAOMI WATTS: (As Lesley) Did you find another actor?

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) No.

WATTS: (As Lesley) Well, Mike's available.

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) He is?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Mike who?

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) I thought he was doing the thing...

WATTS: (As Lesley) He was. He quit or got fired.

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Which is it, quit or fired?

WATTS: (As Lesley) Well, with Mike it's usually both.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Mike who?

WATTS: (As Lesley) Shiner.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Yes (laughter).

MONDELLO: Mike, who's a stage star, comes with his own baggage. Where the original co-star couldn't express emotions, Mike's constantly exploding, even during his audition when he's just running lines with Riggan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")

EDWARD NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) Try it. Lay it on me. Let's just do it. Come on, give it to me. Give it - come on. Don't talk about it. What do you say, spit it out.

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Oh, you say love is absolute.

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) Yes, yes. The kind of love that I'm talking about, it is absolute. The kind of love that I'm talking about, you don't - you don't try to kill people.

MONDELLO: They look at each other. For a first read, that kind of clicked.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Yeah. Good.

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) I don't know. What do you think boss?

MONDELLO: Mike's played by Edward Norton, also an ex-superhero in real life. His "Hulk," remember, had explosion issues. And there are plenty of other celebrity in-jokes, not to mention a nifty literary rift on that Raymond Carver short story that Riggan has supposedly adapted for the stage but that's actually taking over his life, all part of the entertainingly complicated jigsaw puzzle director Alejandro Inarritu has made in "Birdman." His full title is "Birdman Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance." But rest assured, the more you know the more fun it will be. All real-life connections fodder for other connections as the film shreds time and fame and family and the difference between movie acting and stage acting. That one continuous shot conceit is designed to split the difference, forcing the actors to play through long stretches - no cuts to protect them - as the camera zips after them down hallways, into theaters - empty and full - and at one very funny point out into a Times Square mobbed with autograph hunters. It's a great cinematic stunt even when you think you've found the hidden edits. And it makes "Birdman" as exhilarating a flight of fancy as you're likely to see anytime soon. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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