Venetian perennial Alejandro Inarritu opens this year’s Venice Film Festival with the exhilarating Birdman, a self-referential, biting comedy that channels something of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off but this time it’s for the Twitter generation.
The setting is a Broadway theatre, and our hero (or should I say superhero?) is aging Hollywood star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), he of the Birdman superhero trilogy, last seen spreading his wings in the early 1990s. Now Thomson has decided to bring his stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story to the stage, writing, directing and starring in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Has he undertaken too great a task? Is he just another Hollywood has-been using the New York theatre scene to boost his ego and show of his acting chops? The evil Times critic appears to think so and she is determined that he fail. She is played by Lindsay Duncan, a nice touch considering she is a highly esteemed theatre actor in reality.
This is the joy of Birdman: there are many layers and so many references to real life, from the characters’ turbulent storylines to the play being staged that the audience breathlessly jogs along, trying to keep up. Inarritu makes his point quite clearly: he’s had enough of blockbusters and wants more intelligent cinema filled with crisply-executed witty lines delivered by thoughtful actors.
Yet the irony is that his three leads, Keaton, Edward Norton – who plays a theatre luvvie bad boy of Broadway – and Emma Stone as Thomson’s daughter, have all made a very nice living from appearing in those blockbuster superhero movies that Inarritu seems to so despise. When Thomson hears a voice in his head (that of Birdman, his alter ego) he speaks uncannily like a cross between Christian Bale’s Batman and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. A little more mise en abyme, anyone? In case you were in any doubt about all these references, there’s a lovely Roland Barthes joke thrown in for good measure.
The director also has something to say about our socially networked society and how we judge somebody’s relevance by whether they’ve gone viral or how many followers they have. As Thomson’s angry, fragile daughter makes clear, nobody is relevant; we are all a blip in the history of the earth and what we hold dear and how we wish to be perceived is of no consequence at all.
And yet this is a film of great consequence and relevance. The dialogue fizzes, the music – particularly the pounding drums – buoys us along on the journey and visually the film is inventive and rich. The wonderful cast, which includes Andrea Riseborough as Thomson’s sexy, mad girlfriend and co-star, Naomi Watts as the actor who has dreamed all her life of Broadway, Amy Ryan as Thomson’s estranged wife and Zach Galifianakis as Thomson’s best mate-theatre producer, all put in stellar performances. But this is Keaton’s film and he truly soars as the eponymous Birdman.