Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Running time: 119 mins
Rating: R16 violence, sexual references, offensive language & drug use
Verdict: Enthralling and infuriating
Given the backstory of the main character in this ambitious new film, it's hard to avoid thinking of Icarus, who, in flying too close to the sun, became the epitome of ambition thwarted by hubris.
The protean Mexican-born director of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful has made a film about a man seeking to recover his lost glory: he wants to soar above his sense of fading irrelevance, but the film never touches the ground, even when its main character dashes through Times Square in his undies.
As a result, it never really touches the heart either. The technical virtuosity on display never amounts to more than panache because the film never becomes more than its shtick.
If you never played a superhero in a multi-billion-dollar Hollywood franchise, fell on hard times and tried to kickstart your career on the Broadway stage, you may have trouble relating to Riggan Thomson.
That's the improbable name of an actor played by Keaton, whose fretful, energetic performance is one of the film's many impressive component parts that, frustratingly, never cohere into a whole.
The world knows him as the aerial superhero Birdman, and when we meet him he's levitating (it's a recurring motif, like a humourless running gag, that Thomson has retained some of Birdman's superpowers, including telekinesis) and seething with rage at the continuing success of other screen titans.
He's in his dressing room in the last days of rehearsal for a play based on a famous short story by Raymond Carver, and things aren't going well.
An actor is brained in what may or may not be an accident, and his emergency replacement, Mike Shiner (Norton), brings a lot of baggage, not least that he's the boyfriend of leading lady Lesley (Watts).
The two-hour film, shot in and around an off-Broadway theatre and a nearby bar, is notionally a single take (spotting the cuts is half the fun), which allows Inarritu to move seamlessly between present and past and between Thomson's real life and the one conjured only by his resentment and neurotic imagination.
Michael Keaton in Birdman. Photo / AP
That is the least of the visual flights of fancy (there are meteors, monsters and more green-screening than you can shake a stick at) that Inarritu deploys, taking us deeper in to Thomson's despair.
But it just never adds up. The play, what little we see of it, is a crock, anyway; we're meant to care about it, but it deserves to fail. Inarritu sets up a terrific bar-room exchange between Thomson and the Times critic (Duncan) but it's based on a fallacy: no critic, no matter how cruel, openly vows to destroy a play before she's seen it simply because she hates the star. And no critic worth the name would change her mind as suddenly as this one does.
Emma Stone in a scene from Birdman.
The film is, in the end, like a roller-coaster ride: it's dizzying and thrilling but you don't go anywhere. It's a series of such glittering but hollow exchanges between characters who always look and act like characters.
When its subtitle - The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance - shows up late in the film, we still have no idea why, or what it means. It just sounds good. Well, this film looks good, but it's hard to disagree with the (perhaps imaginary) sidewalk apparition during the endless climax who intones Macbeth as Thomson walks past: there's a lot of sound and fury here, all right, and what it signifies is sound and fury.
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