The programmers of the Venice Film Festival haven’t eased us gently into this year’s proceedings: they’ve thrown us in head first. The Festival’s opening film is Birdman, a frantic, tragicomic fever dream directed and co-written by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel). The actors blurt out their dialogue at screwball speed, the ideas and incidents never stop hurtling past, the insistent jazz-drumming soundtrack rarely lets up, and, thanks to its seamless editing and the extraordinarily nimble camerawork of Emmanual Lubezki (the cinematographer of Gravity and Children Of Men), almost the whole film appears to unfold in one, long, unbroken take, so the viewer never has a chance to pause for breath.
On the surface, Birdman is a backstage farce set in a New York theatre just off Times Square, but watching it feels more like taking a rollercoaster ride while an improvisational comedian rants drunkenly in your ear. You don’t always know what they’re getting at, and you suspect that they don’t always know what they’re getting at either, but the passion, the whirling energy and the technical brilliance are dizzying. As Bette Davis said in All About Eve, another film about ageing and Broadway, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” She didn’t know the half of it.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood hasbeen who is directing and starring in his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Thomson has never performed on Broadway before, but he is determined to distance himself from Birdman, a rubber-suited superhero he last played in a blockbuster movie more than 20 years ago. But if he wants to forget Birdman, Birdman doesn’t want to forget him. Thomson keeps hallucinating that his signature character is there in his dressing room, taunting him, swearing at him, and urging him to return to Hollywood. As we rush through the blood-splattered rehearsals and drunken previews towards the opening night of Thomson’s play, he seems to be losing his grip on reality, much to the concern of his neglected girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and his faithful lawyer (Zach Galifianakis). Should he stick with the supposed high-art of Broadway, or squeeze into his Birdman costume once again?
If Thomson’s back story seems familiar, that’s no coincidence. Replace “Bird” with “Bat”, and you can hear a deafening echo of Keaton’s own career. He too walked away from a Hollywood superhero franchise in 1992. If that weren’t postmodern enough, Thomson’s Broadway co-star is an insanely cocky method actor played by Edward Norton, the star of The Incredible Hulk. And Thomson’s resentful, aggressive daughter, just out of rehab, is played by Emma Stone, aka Spider-Man’s girlfriend in The Amazing Spider-Man. At one point, they’re all in the frame together: Batman arguing with Bruce Banner while Gwen Stacy looks on.
But Birdman isn’t simply a winking look at modern celebrity and Hollywood’s current obsession with superhero movies. Jumping between genres, it has some of the ambition and the surrealism of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), although Kaufman’s films are never quite so fast and furious. It says something that Galifianakis, the oddball from The Hangover, plays the most calm, focused and well-groomed character in the entire enterprise.
At times, it must be said, the freeform craziness can be more exhausting than exhilarating. The relentlessly jittery rhythms ruin the timing of some of the jokes, and several subplots fall by the wayside. But even when the pinballing chaos threatens to alienate the audience, Keaton’s fearless, manic but tender performance draws us back in. On screen for nearly all of the two-hour running time, he deserves an Oscar nomination, and he should be seen in many more high-profile films from now on. If he decides to make another Batman movie while he’s at it, so much the better.