Review: Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman’ opens Venice with a sure-fire Oscar bet

VENICE – Truth or dare? This is a game played by two characters in magnificently acidic metatextual comedy “Birdman.” It's also the film as a three-word question. Truth or dare? Real stage actor or star? You can have your artistic integrity, or you can have a hit. You can go Method, or you can really fly. You can be Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), or you can be Birdman (Riggan Thomson). Initially, “Birdman” poses as a trenchant critique of the seemingly endless parade of men in capes that is the summer blockbuster season (Michael Fassbender and Robert Downey Jr. are name-checked as fine actors currently otherwise occupied), but it's actually rather more nuanced than that.

The values of the sober-minded art espoused by a poisonous critic (Lindsay Duncan) and the untrustworthy joys of escapist cinema are both probed and prodded in this film. It's impossible for a film featuring the nightmare creation of stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) – whose hilarious awfulness is signposted before he even opens his mouth by a fedora that is the millinery equivalent of a dick move – to be entirely on the side of capital T truth and capital A art. “Birdman” dares to be ambiguous, but unlike most essays in ambiguity, it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu (as the director now styles himself) feels like such a permanent fixture on the festival circuit, it's almost hard to believe that the career-to-date highpoint of “Birdman” is only his fifth feature. Ever since making a splashy debut with Cannes Critics' Week winner “Amores Perros”, the multi-talented, self-made Mexican (prior to directing, he achieved fame in his home country as a radio host, journalist and composer) has premiered a feature at either Cannes or Venice every three or four years.

“Birdman” (or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” – the alternate title resolves satisfyingly in the film) proves to be a sparkling tonic to his life-is-hideous trilogy (“21 Grams”, “Babel” and “Biutiful”) containing a bitter shot of gin, calculated to give industry egos a knowing but energizing kick in the pants.

It's also a technically superlative exercise (as was last year's Venice opener “Gravity”). The much-vaunted single-take effect achieved by DP Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione (with a couple of exceptions the film appears to play without cuts) is not a gimmick, but a storytelling technique that achieves an arguably superior effect to that realized by Alfred Hitchcock in “Rope.” Where “Rope's” apparent single take ended up feeling a little stagy, as if the original play was being filmed live, “Birdman” is alive in every frame – the effect is of staying up several days in a row, watching the sunrise and carrying on, events slurring together with strung-out nervous energy. And that's exactly where Riggan Thomson's head is at.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan in an astonishingly good performance. Not washed up exactly (he can afford to stage a vanity project of dubious financial wisdom), Riggan's got creative ennui and a love-hate relationship with the alter ego that made him a success: Birdman. We don't ever find out all that much about Birdman; we don't need to. He's got a deep, critical voice, which talks to Riggan constantly. He's the linchpin of a superhero franchise from before superhero franchises were fashionable. We also know that Riggan said no to “Birdman 4.” Sure, he's kind of Batman, but we don't need that to be said (more on the intersection of Keaton's career with his role here in a bit). Riggan has alienated his family and surrounded himself with “yes” men, with the dubious exception of his daughter (Emma Stone), hired as his PA after a stint in rehab. When he casts Mike Shiner (Norton) in his own vainglorious adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” he opens himself up to a nightmare of insecurity and ego.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is short, even for a short story (in my edition it runs to all of 17 pages). Written in the first person, a man named Nick tells us about sitting around a table, getting drunk with his partner Laura and another couple, Terri and Mel. The four discuss what love means to them…and that's it. Of particular note are the recollections of Terri, who describes how she was once loved by Ed, a wild man who tried to shoot her and her new lover (now husband) Mel. The idea of turning Carver's shabbily elegant philosophical shrug of a story into full-blown theater is in itself comic – generous invention or interpretation will be required to fill out the run-time.

The climactic scene of Riggan's attempt to realize Carver's work for Broadway is apparently a dramatization of Terri's story about her ex. Terri, played by Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Mel, played by Mike (Edward Norton), are interrupted at a motel by Ed, played by Riggan in a double role – earlier in the play he inhabited the skin of Nick, the short story's all-seeing “I.”

Not content with inserting himself into a visualization of the other couple's past, we've also seen him perform a beautiful opening scene monologue stolen wholesale from another character; in the Carver, a moving anecdote about an old couple in love belongs to Mel. You don't need to know the original story to see what's going on here or grasp how remorselessly Riggan is placing himself front and center. Hell, you don't even need to see his play: it's all right there on the theater billboards – a flattering black and white shot of Riggan with none of the other actors in the four-hander to be seen.

Riggan is a gift of a meaty, unflattering role for any middle-aged actor (“60 is the new 30, motherfucker” is one of the film's many quotable lines), but feels absolutely tailored to Keaton's strengths, and highly attuned to his career trajectory. It's rare that you get such a bespoke fit between character and actor without feeling like someone is simply performing a version of themselves. I don't think that's what's going on here; there's none of that nudge-wink “check out what a great sport I am” feeling you get when actors play themselves in supposedly vanity-free cameos (which are often simply a different form of vanity – the #nomakeupselfie of the profession). This is Keaton's return in a role that resonates with real life, but does not seek to replicate it.

The most surprising thing about “Birdman's” leading man is perhaps his restraint. After all,  Keaton knows all about playing larger-than-life characters. He set the tone early on with his manic breakout role as fast-talking Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski in Ron Howard's 1982 comedy “Night Shift.” In “Beetle Juice” he enraptured audiences with the hard-drinkin', would-be womanizing supernatural hobo version of a fixer: “I'm the afterlife's leading bio-exorcist. Yes siree! So come on down, and I'll tell ya, I'll do anything.” In the sub-par “Multiplicity”, his charisma was spread thin across a gang of clones, each wackier than the last. But think about the role on which “Birdman” riffs. As a bona fide comic book character, Batman, Keaton was counter-intuitively restrained, in deference to the Dark Knight's traditionally saturnine outlook (albeit it's easy to imagine an alternate reality where he filled Jack Nicholson's clown shoes as The Joker).

Those sound counter-intuitive instincts come into play in “Birdman.” While Norton blazes deliciously in the first act before being somewhat sidelined (intentionally so; the film's tone as the narrative progresses is beautifully balanced), Keaton holds it in, and holds it in, and holds it in some more, teasing us with tiny flashes of the crackling mania we know he's capable of unleashing (witness a scene where he reveals his backstory to Mike, bruising the Method actor's comfortable assumptions about Riggan).

We're grotesquely desperate to really see him lose it, consequences be damned, then remorseful as his disintegration takes effect. It's the same impulse that leads his tough-waif daughter Sam to verbally crush his delusions of relevance, underestimating the power her wounding words clearly wield, perhaps underestimating her own love for her dad, and immediately regretting her tirade. It's yet again the same impulse that leads consumers of celebrity news to follow narratives of stars' ascendance and breakdown – the Icarus narrative, if you like, and don't imagine that's a reference a film called “Birdman” is about to let lie, though its appearance is wisely brief and resonance mostly sub-textual.

And yeah, this is a film about self-destructive people. It's about actors. How could it not be? Emma Stone (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) is well-versed in playing opposite superheroes, whether fictional (Peter Parker's web-slinging alter ego) or cultural (Ryan Gosling, with whom Stone sparked sweetly in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” is the closest thing pop culture has right now to a hero). Here, she's bouncing off their opposite: a man who should be a hero to Sam, if no one else – her father – but who has seemingly been one long disappointment instead, a man whose career as a big screen hero made him anything but to his loved ones.

However, her notion that it was his absence that drove her to drugs and rehab is subtly flagged in the narrative as flimsy – her own self-destructive impulses don't feel quite that pat or simple. At every other juncture, she's almost painfully self-aware and watches other people's actions like they're taking place the other side of a screen – at one point, she critiques an attempted seduction with a trifecta of crushing comparisons: Oprah, Hallmark and R. Kelly. Tellingly, her first action in “Birdman” is to buy Riggan the wrong kind of flowers – the note she leaves on them reads almost like a pained farewell somebody might attach to the funeral bouquet of a suicide: “They didn't have whatever you wanted.”

Stone's is the plum female role. There's the faintest sense of disappointment that none of the female roles amount to all that much in the final analysis, despite top drawer performances from Watts, Stone and the wonderful Amy Ryan (“The Office”, “Gone Baby Gone”), and that's sort of fine – it's Keaton's show. But none of them get to have quite as much fun as the male secondary roles, either. Norton is monstrous and monstrously funny – there's the distinct possibility of supporting nominations there – and Zach Galifianakis is superb as Keaton's put-upon, say-anything producer.

To end on a note of which Lindsay Duncan's somber, acid-tongued theater critic would undoubtedly disapprove: “Birdman” offers several sure bets come Oscar season. It's inconceivable that Lubezki's cinematography won't be nominated (a win in that category would see the Mexican DP carry off his second gold statuette from the Academy in two years, after last year's “Gravity” win). Equally, Keaton brings a likable comeback narrative to the table, and much more importantly, a brilliant performance – count on at least a nomination for him. A second Best Director nomination for Iñárritu is a strong possibility, as are Screenplay and Editing nods (the genius of the editing here being its invisibility), and while “Birdman” might not take home Best Picture, I'd be genuinely shocked if it wasn't nominated.

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