Ex-Batman actor Michael Keaton must have felt more than a touch of deja-vu in the title role of Alejandro G. Inarritu's brilliant dark comedy about an actor trying to redeem his career by staging a serious dramatic Broadway debut after his career as a movie comic-book hero has faded.
The movie filmed almost entirely in the St James Theater on West 44th Street starts as Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is about to begin previews of a play that he has adapted from a Raymond Carver novel, which he has both directed and also stars in. Having the camera follow the actors at close quarters as they rush around the theatre gives the movie the illusion that the whole proceedings are just one big single take. It's an inspired idea and succeeds in keeping the adrenaline flowing at a rapid pace throughout the whole piece.
Riggan's nerves are very raw as he has sunk everything into this production from his reputation to every single cent from the Bank, and he is racked with such self-doubt about the production being a success. The play's cast include Lesley another film actor making her Broadway too, and Laura who is also doubling the role with also being Riggan's on/off lover too. The third member of this four-handed drama is such a hammy actor that when an accident (!) incapacitates him, Laura persuades Riggan to re-cast the part with Mike a well-known and popular stage actor who just happens to be her current boyfriend.
Mike is possibly the most talented actor of the play's cast which he is happy to remind Riggan at every single opportunity, but he is a bit of wild card who can behave erratically on and off the stage. He however isn't the only problem that Riggan has to face. There is Sam his teenage daughter just released from re-hab who he has misguidedly employed as his personal assistant. When she is not rebuking her father for ignoring modern phenomenon of social media try and boost his sagging career, she is having inappropriate sexual relations with Mike. Also girlfriend Laura announces she is pregnant just before the curtain rises too.
The deeper the mess that Riggan seems to find himself too, he resorts to listening to the voice of his alter-ego and he has also convinced himself that he has this superpower to move inanimate objects by the power of thought alone.
During the countdown to the opening night of the play there are manic scenes straight out of a comic farce. Such as when a near-naked Riggan is accidentally locked out of the theatre's stage door midway through a preview and must stride through the packed crowds of Times Square in just his underpants to get back in. Then there is the encounter in the bar next to the theater when he has a contretemps with Tabitha the NY Times Theatre Critic who tells him she has vowed to give him the worst review in history to ensure the play is a flop as she bitterly resents Hollywood celebrities invading Broadway which she considers is her holy grail.
However, convinced that Mike will yet again upstage him on the play's opening night and firmly believing that he is about to lose everything, Riggan finds some inner strength to add a totally unexpected twist that shocks us all and wins him rave reviews from the Times after all.
Throughout this whole process Riggan is still completely obsessed with his past playing the infamous Birdman that brought him fame and success and has unquestionably shaped who he has become on so many levels. In the end he accepts the inevitability and simply gives in and let's him take over completely.
This is one amazing joy ride of a movie that never lets up both delighting and confronting the audience for the entire two hours. Inarritu's has imbued this, his 5th feature, with his extraordinary impassioned imagination that as, is his raison d'etre, is evident in every minute detail of the movie. The stunning cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) is nothing less than breathtaking. and it's accompanied by constant bursts of jazz drumming from Antonio Sanchez.
Keaton's very raw and brilliant performance as Riggan is what really makes the movie soar. He literally exposes himself in a role that could easily be conceived as based on his own life with a career that has hardly been in ascendant since his last Batman movie twenty years ago. Here he shows what a remarkable and honest actor he really is as he totally captures every nuance of this fallen star who wants to rise and fly again. I'd go so far as to suggest that this is a career best for Keaton, a fact which will be borne out when the Acting Award season starts soon.
He however wasn't alone up there on the screen and was complemented in particular with two powerful performances from the remarkable Emma Stone as Sam, and the ever wonderful Edward Norton as Mike. Nods also to Naomi Watts playing Lesley, Andrea Riseborough as Leslie, a very low key Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's manager, Amy Ryans as his ex wife, and also Lindsay Duncan as Tabitha.
I would hesitate to declare that this is director/co-writer Inarritu's best ever movie as the four memorable ones that proceed this (especially 'Amores Perros') are quite brilliant. However it was good enough for me at least to consider the thought for more than a moment. He is nothing less than a cinematic genius who continually successful pushes the boundaries of our imagination and gives us something remarkably refreshing and unique that is always such a sheer joy to experience.
Reviewed By Roger Walker-Dack