Bravura film-maker Alejandro González Iñárritu is not an obvious fit for comedy. However, Birdman is not obviously comedic. In this, his fifth feature, the director follows the palpably-dark Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful with something completely different.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up Hollywood actor famed for playing the titular Birdman in a successful superhero franchise. Desperate for credibility he mounts a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Writing, producing and directing duties - while also starring in the play - means biting off a little bit more than he can chew. A post-rehab daughter assistant (Emma Stone), a difficult co-star (Edward Norton) and a vicious theatre critic (Lindsey Duncan) all help send Riggan into a downward spiral. And I haven’t even mentioned that voice in his head. His disastrous previews, building up to the night’s opening, result in meltdown.
Stylistically, the film rests on one breath-taking central device: it is, effectively, done in one take. It’s not, of course. The magic of today’s technology means the director could fake it. But then Hitchcock didn’t really shoot Rope in one take either. My point being that even with the trickery this is still muscular film-making from Iñárritu. The long takes are extraordinary. Considerable chunks of plot occur within them, pushing the action forward at speed. Incredible technical precision from the actors was required to make it work and everyone one of them delivers convincing performances.
As an actor of some worth (one of whom this reviewer is rather fond) and having donned Batman’s cape and tights, Michael Keaton’s casting is both perfect and deliciously post-modern. Edward Norton is a wonderful nemesis – a nightmarish embodiment of an actor at their worst. In terms of humanity, that is. His acting is good, his personality is not. Zack Galifianakis reins in his comic chops to good effect. Brit actress Andrea Risborough proves further mettle, Naomi Watts displays incredible vulnerability and Emma Stone delivers an absurdly mature performance for one so young.
The film is underpinned by a radical, percussive score from Antonio Sanchez. The jazz-style use of only drums and cymbals provides an erratic heartbeat for the film, emphasising Riggan’s increasing levels of anxiety.
Co-writing duties (which helped him, deservedly, win a Golden Globe on Sunday) demonstrate Alejandro González Iñárritu's entrenchment in this work. He's delivered an uncompromising work that's fantastically bonkers. I'm not sure I fully understood it in the end but I still loved every bit of it. Make sure you catch it on the big screen.