This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 11th January 2015
The bravura style of filmmaking which will gradually reveal itself in the opening scenes will totally blow your mind, but since I don’t want to spoil that for you, I’ll stick to raving about Birdman’s incisive performances and excoriating commentary on the ills of show business. But if that’s not enough to compel you to see it, go along for the gimmick.
And so. An unexpectedly handsome Michael Keaton plays a former movie star whose glory days playing a Hollywood superhero (the titular riff on his 1990s role as Batman) are long past. (It’s so meta!) His future now hangs on a self-produced Broadway play whose longevity will be entirely contingent on the write-up of an embittered critic. (Do you think Keaton read the script through before signing up? If so, his willingness to play up this arguably art-imitates-life situation is admirable.)
Over the course of an almost real-time day and night, Keaton’s beleaguered has-been, Riggan Thomas, grapples with the needs of a benevolent ex-wife, demanding young girlfriend, difficult daughter (an eye-rolling Emma Stone), narcissistic new talent (an outstanding Edward Norton) and his own existential crisis.
It’s probably the darkest view of the movie business you’ve ever seen, and it does stoop to some pretty grim levels towards the end. But the manner of execution is so enthralling and the script so relentlessly clever, you forgive the final act flourishes which might put some viewers off recommending the film unreservedly. Perhaps it shows the non-Hollywood sensibility of Birdman’s maker: Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu made Babel and 21 Grams with Hollywood casts but always injects his stories with something of the “other”. Responsible also for writing Birdman, he is to be applauded not just for his photographic panache but delivering a gritty, captivating tale.
The in-joke is that Birdman is as much a comeback vehicle for Keaton as Riggan’s theatrical endeavour (the film has already been lauded with several Golden Globe nominations) – but this is only part of the delight. Seeing Keaton more than hold his own amongst an outstanding supporting cast is heartening; watching Norton play against the incredibly earnest types of his recent career reinforces his great breadth. Naomi Watts is brilliant at sending up artists of her ilk; Zach Galifianakis looks, as usual, to be having a blast.
With its tongue firmly in its cheek, Birdman shows there are plenty of tricks left in the game of exciting filmmaking.