Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman
"There's some great black comedy here, at times spectacularly cruel."

In the winter months, as readers will know, certain types of film rarely seen during the rest of the year begin to predominate. They are known, somewhat indelicately, as Oscar bait. Birdman is the story of a once popular film star trying to open his first play on Broadway, a tale which questions the artistic merits of cinema in relation to its older cousin and which parallels the take of a man desperate to produce theatrical art with its own apparent desperation to receive cinematic acclaim.

Michael Keaton is Riggan, a washed-up actor popularly known as Birdman because of the action blockbusters that made his name; there's an obvious reference here to Keaton's brief tenure as Batman but in many ways the character is more reminiscent of Watchmen's thinly disguised Night Owl. Both present us with divided personalities, troubled men tempted by escapism, and Riggan seems haunted by a fragment of personality left over from his role - one whose vocal presence mimics Christian Bale's much-derided growl as it urges him to use supernatural powers that may exist entirely within the actor's mind, sealed by confirmation bias drawn from a couple of unlikely accidents. One of these accidents knocks out Riggan's leading man, so he is forced to bring in a stranger, Mike (Edward Norton), whose OTT approach to Method and general grandstanding prove seriously disruptive, not least to our hero's own fragile ego. As he struggles to navigate the resulting mess, teetering on the edge of despair, his feathered id gets increasingly pushy. Can he manage to salvage the production, or will he sabotage it? Can he salvage himself?

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There's some great black comedy here, at times spectacularly cruel. The whole, however, is at least half an hour too long and stymied by pomposity. This may in part be a deliberate reflection on the Raymond Carver material (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) that Riggan has rather crudely adapted, but if this makes it a cleverer piece of art, it makes it a poorer film. Some impressively tight editing is let down by the fact that somebody should really have gouged big chunks out of this before it made it to the screen; it's overindulgent, trying to pack in all the smart ideas it can and, as a result, failing to make any of them impact the viewer as they should.

Keaton himself, it has to be said, is excellent in the central role. He was always a better Bruce Wayne than Batman and he draws on his own theatrical experience in approaching the conflict between the two worlds Riggan must inhabit. He's helped along by superb, subtle work from the make-up and costuming departments but the core of the film is his own performance and he gives it his all. There's also an impressively understated turn from Zach Galifianakis as his agent, for once escaping typecasting and showing what he's capable of. Naomi Watts is back on form as the play's female lead and there are no weak links in the ensemble.

A distinctive score from Antonio Sánchez and fluid camerawork both contribute to making the film stand out and it's easy to see why critics have been so excited about it. In the end, though, it is less than the sum of its parts. It flaps and flutters where it might have soared.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2014
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A washed-up actor makes a bid on Broadway to reclaim his former glory.
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Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo

Starring: Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Michael Keaton, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Merritt Wever, Natalie Gold, Joel Garland, Anna Hardwick, Carrie Ormond, Clark Middleton, Bill Camp, Stefanie Bari

Year: 2014

Runtime: 119 minutes

Country: US, France

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