Riggan (Michael Keaton) is haunted by his superhero alter ego in Birdman (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock released Rope, a murder mystery with an intriguing gimmick: The film was shot in long takes that mimicked the continuous action of live theater.

In 2014, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has attempted the same high-wire act with Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Actually, the Mexican director/co-writer (Biutiful) has gone his predecessor one better. While Hitchcock was forced to introduce a new shot at 20-minute intervals to coincide with the changing of reels when the film was screened, Birdman appears to have been made in one unedited take.

It wasn’t, obviously, but Inarritu’s bold attempt to carry off the illusion (with help from Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) adds an extra measure of eccentricity to a film that already defies convention.

In a role that partially mirrors his own career, Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor whose popularity peaked when he played a superhero named Birdman in a trio of blockbuster hits. (Keaton, of course, had his greatest success playing the Caped Crusader in 1989’s Batman and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns.)

Now it’s a couple of decades later, and Riggan is trying to revive his celebrity status by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s a precarious undertaking that’s complicated by a lack of money and, even more, by the voice he keeps hearing in his head—a voice that apparently belongs to the superhero he once played.

This inner Birdman has a dual message: 1) You’re in way over your head; and 2) you should go back to making the kind of escapist entertainment the public really wants. In other words, it’s not too late to make Birdman IV.

Also threatening the play’s upcoming opening is a co-star whose over-emoting is stinking up the stage, but a convenient “accident” clears the way for a celebrated replacement named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). The only drawback is that Mike’s talent for acting is matched by his talent for throwing various monkey wrenches into the works—for instance, by trying to have actual coitus during an onstage sex scene with his ex-lover/co-star (Naomi Watts).

Further complications include Riggan’s rehabbed daughter (Emma Stone), a remonstrative ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and a neglected girlfriend (Andrea Roseborough) who claims she’s pregnant. Desperately trying to keep things on track is his attorney (Zach Galifianakis), who might be even more worried than he is if he knew what Riggan is up to when no one else is around.

Riggan has a bevy of superpowers, including levitation, teleportation and even flight. Or, at least, he seems to. Whether these powers are real or imagined is a question viewers must answer for themselves.

With its emphasis on character over plot, its forays into fantasy and its deft combination of hilarious dark humor and potential tragedy, Birdman is one of those rare flicks that don’t let you know exactly where they’re going. Add the offbeat filming style and top-drawer acting by Keaton and the rest of the cast, and you have an exhilarating experience.

Unfortunately, that exhilaration doesn’t quite make it to the end. Faced with the tricky task of wrapping up a film that’s delicately balanced between fantasy and reality, Inarritu has settled on a finale that will leave many viewers with the dreaded “Huh?” response.

Up until then, Birdman is one fascinating ride.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Birdman, rated R, opens Thursday (Oct. 30) at the AMC Lennox Town Center 24. (Additional Columbus area theaters will open the film in subsequent weeks.)