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BIRDMAN No More Heroes

Birdman
Birdman

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu

Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts

It’s hard to blame whatever poor marketing team was handed the Birdman brief for fumbling the ball – it’s a very difficult film to encapsulate. The extant advertising makes it seem like a scathing indictment of the current fad for superhero films and, yeah, that’s part of it, but this latest puzzle from Mexican auteur Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amores Perros, Babel) is so much more than that. It is vast; it contains multitudes.

Fallen Hollywood star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, never better) scrabbles for some kind of artistic respect and career resuscitation by mounting a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. It’s a troubled production and Riggan, at the end of his tether, hallucinates that he is being kibitzed by Birdman, the superhero character he is most famous for playing and the cultural albatross around his neck. Meanwhile, he must contend with his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan); his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering addict who is also his assistant; and acclaimed method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a late addition to cast and a constant thorn in Riggan’s side.

Inarritu’s backstage drama plays out like a surrealist take on the Book Of Job, with Riggan taking flak from every conceivable point of the compass. Keaton is note-perfect as the increasingly haggard and desperate Riggan, all wide eyes and nervous twitches as he navigates a world where everyone around him is seemingly oblivious to how incredibly unhappy he is. It’s a portrait of a man who is barely holding on by his fingernails and Keaton, whose best characters have always shown an awareness of their own incipient madness, just kills it.

The whole exercise is post-modern as all hell and steeped in metatextuality – it stars Batman, The Hulk and Gwen Stacy, for crying out loud – and Inarritu’s elegant, swooping camera and visual non-sequiturs highlight the artificiality of the proceedings, but there is an affecting emotional core here that is never lost in the stylistic grandstanding. Keaton’s disintegrating former heavyweight is an incredibly sympathetic protagonist, even when, as the film progresses and his hallucinations become more profound, we’re unsure of the objective reality of the events he’s experiencing and the world he inhabits.

Birdman Or (the Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) – to give the film it’s full title – is a kind of fractal work that will greatly reward repeat viewing, offering up fresh interpretations and facets with each revisitation. It’s a showbiz satire, a screwball backstage comedy, a meditation on the toxic effects of fame and external validation, a slap in the face of the adult juvenilia that dominates the current box office, a treatise on the mysterious nature of creativity, a character examination of a man in freefall, a comedy, a drama, at times a horror. It’s certainly one of the most unique films you’ll see this year, and for that alone it deserves your attention.

 

TRAVIS JOHNSON

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