Given that writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) tends to make films that don't follow any linear storyline, it's refreshing to see him take a more direct approach with Birdman, a movie about Riggan Thomson, a fading Hollywood actor (Michael Keaton) who sets out to prove himself with an ambitious Broadway play. The film opens areawide on Friday.
Riggan is struggling to overcome a stigma: He's best known for playing the superhero Birdman. And yes, Birdman is a stand-in for Batman, the superhero that Keaton did actually play in 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns. Riggan still hears Birdman's gravelly voice in his head (and the guy sounds a lot like Keaton sounded when he played Batman), and he even has some special powers, though it's never clear whether he really just imagines that he does. The character has a strange psychological hold on Riggan and often tells him he's crazy for thinking he can pull off a successful Broadway production.
Based on the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," Riggan's play is fraught with problems, the most notable of which is that the cast isn't very good. But when a lighting rig falls and injures one of the leads, Riggan's manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis) recruits acclaimed thespian and Broadway star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to take his place. Mike brings a real intensity to the set and befriends Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering addict who's drawn to his charisma. He also feuds with Riggan and Lesley (Naomi Watts), both on and off set as he tries to tell them the play needs to be real, even if that means having sex on stage or getting drunk during a drinking scene. All the while, Jake tries to keep the peace while Riggan attempts to keep the voice in his head at bay so that they can make it through opening night.
The two-hour film doesn't seem overly long — characters regularly speak at a fast clip and a manic jazz soundtrack keeps the action moving. While it could be called a drama, it's more apt to describe it as a black comedy (and there are some truly funny scenes that skewer both Hollywood and Broadway as well as the critics who write about films and plays). The film opened the Venice International Film Festival and has gotten positive reviews since debuting in limited release earlier this month.
It probably won't appeal too much outside of the art house circuit, but it's more accessible (and yet just as arty) as Iñárritu's previous efforts.