An actor (Michael Keaton) who once found fame by playing an iconic superhero attempts to reclaim his former success by mounting a Broadway play and must overcome his ego and family trouble in the process.

He has to deal with his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), who works on the play as his assistant, as well as his cast: co-star and love interest Laura (Andrea Riseborough), method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), and the latter's girlfriend Lynne (Naomi Watts).

 

[Read our interview with Michael Keaton and Alejandro González Iñárritu]

 

4
A must-see film.

A strange and brilliant monster, Birdman is not only one of the year’s most technically ambitious films – made to look as if it’s filmed in one long almost unbroken take – it’s also one of the funniest. In a role that toys with reality, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a once-successful Hollywood star who made it big playing a birdlike superhero. (Remember, Keaton twice donned the Batman costume.) Now, as the grey hairs gather and his belly sags, Riggan is desperate to mount a comeback. This time he’s craving critical respect and like so many jaded movie stars, he seeks salvation treading the boards of live theatre. He’s mounting a Broadway production of a play he’s written based on a Raymond Carver short story – ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. It looks like a truly terrible play, yet for everyone involved it’s deadly serious.

"It’s a joy to see Keaton in a role that utilises his crazy, charming weirdness and his total lack of vanity."

Shot by DOP Emmanuel Lubezki, the film is set almost entirely in the dimly lit back corridors and messy dressing rooms of New York City’s historic St. James Theatre. The camera glides and swoops, closely following Riggan and also adopting his point of view as he battles to mount the besieged production (in which he takes a lead role of course). An urgent percussive score of drums and cymbals by Antonio Sanchez accompanies the restless journey as Riggan races to feed his hungry ego – which sometimes appears as a gravel-voiced character with black wings and supernatural powers.

Riggan’s fellow players are similarly fragile actors, bursting with their own naked neuroses. ‘Why don’t I have any self-respect?’ wails Lesley (Naomi Watts) to her dressing room mirror. ‘You’re an actress, honey,’ soothes her co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) in one of the many jibes directed at the profession. Theatre critics too, are brought in for sport, as Riggan realises the entire fate of his play rests on a single review from New York’s top critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). ‘What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic?,’ he asks her in a bitter exchange in a bar.

There’s a crackling gladiatorial energy between every character and in every scene in Birdman. This is most thrilling in the scenes featuring  the gifted but unhinged Mike (Edward Norton) who’s brought in to save the play when another actor is injured. Like Keaton, Norton is playing to the audience’s sense of who he might really be (a Hollywood hothead? A genius with a mean streak?) and the scenes featuring Norton and Keaton together as they unravel the text of the play and bash up against each other (literally) in a clash of bodies and egos are among the most exciting, funny and dangerous in the film. Wonderful too are the scenes with Riggan and his just-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone in a wonderfully fierce performance) and his clear-eyed but sympathetic ex-wife (Amy Ryan).

Birdman is the first comedy from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director of such intense, bleak multi-strand narratives as Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful. As a comedy Birdman is certainly black but never despairing, and it’s a joy to see Keaton in a role that utilises his crazy, charming weirdness and his total lack of vanity. (We see him exposed and vulnerable in large white underpants several times during the narrative – on one occasion running through a crowded Times Square and becoming an unwitting social media phenomenon.)

Birdman opened the 71st Venice International Film Festival in 2014 and has been gathering accolades ever since. It’s no wonder; it’s a tour de force and a pure pleasure as a satire on the conflicting pursuits of fame, love, respect and critical acclaim. The film’s one false step lies in its deployment of magic realism to suggest that Riggan’s super ego – and accompanying superpowers – may be real. It’s one thing to levitate in your underpants, hear voices and see monsters in the mirror – we all have days like that, figuratively speaking. But it’s another thing entirely to literally spout wings and take flight as you soar over New York’s skyscrapers. Like so many other films featuring magic, it would have been better for this one to leave these elements blurry and suggested rather than spelt out, as the film’s final scenes insist on doing. But make no mistake, there is magic here, and Birdman is definitely a must-see film.

 

 

Watch 'Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)'

Friday 23 July, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)

MA15+
USA, 2014
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Language: English
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

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