Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor. In his prime he starred as ‘Birdman’, a movie superhero popular with audiences but disparaged by critics. Like most Hollywood egos, Riggan’s is fragile and the years of critical condemnation have done their damage to his mental state. Depressed and prone to hearing the cantankerous, disembodied voice of his ‘Birdman’ alter ego, Riggan is attempting to claw back some credibility by directing and starring in a Broadway play.
For a successful play you need a great star so Riggan is hiring the preening, volatile, acclaimed method ac-tooor Mike (Edward Norton), plus needy supporting actresses Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts). Add to his plate a daughter Sam (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab and waspish theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who has the knives out for Riggan and you could say he’s feeling somewhat stressed. Can Riggan pull his cast, and himself, together to make sure it’s all right on the night? Frankly, it’s not looking good…
Set in the theatre in the run up to opening night, Birdman is a phenomenally clever piece of filmmaking. After a while (Sloths are slow animals…), we realised most of the film is evidently one long, continuous, real time tracking shot. The handheld camera wanders the theatre corridors, emerges onstage to capture a rehearsal, follows an actor exiting off stage, whirls around to enter a dressing room. We simply couldn’t spot where (surely) one take ended and another began. But this is no realistic docu-drama, rather it’s surreal, darkly comic, satirical and often touching, largely down to Michael Keaton’s tremendous performance – it’s no stretch of imagination to spot the parallels between Riggan’s career and Keaton’s own. To take on a role partially satirising yourself must take courage.
Oh, and the briefs? At points both Ed Norton and Michael Keaton gamely parade themselves in their smalls and yes, both look pigeon-chested, bandy legged, scrawny limbed idiots. Gentleman, for that alone, The Sloth salutes you.
UK release 1 January 2015