Ah, the smell of greasepaint, the clash of inflated egos and the insecurities of actors – welcome to the mysterious backstage world of theatre land.
This land of luvvies has always been a universe of intense rivalries, backstabbing, jealousy and intrigue and in Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu chucks all these elements into the cauldron of live performance, turns the switch to max and watches what happens with glee.
The title character is washed-up film actor Riggan (Michael Keaton, very bravely playing a version of himself, warts and all), who once starred as superhero Birdman in blockbuster movies. But now, the film parts have dried up and he is trying to recreate himself as a serious thespian, starring in an off-Broadway drama he has partly bankrolled himself, much to the consternation of his lawyer/manager/agent (a really rather good Zach Galifianakis).
An already fraught production just keeps unravelling as the second lead actor is hospitalised in an accident and the female lead (Naomi Watts) suggests Riggan takes on her ex, the precociously talented but highly unstable Mike (Edward Norton) as his replacement.
If troubles onstage aren’t enough, family problems also beset Riggan, as his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) may or may not be pregnant while he has his suspicions his ex-junkie daughter (a lovely, world-weary performance from Emma Stone) may or may not be using again. And then there’s Riggan’s alter-ego, Birdman himself, standing in the wings like a constant reminder of what he once was and how much he still has to lose.
While these mainly monstrous characters scream, fight, bitch and shed copious tears the camera zooms around backstage between the dressing-rooms and the labyrinthine stairwells in a never ceasing frenzy of movement to such an extent that you’ll want to cry ‘stop!’ just so your eyes get a rest. The feverish pitch of the acting also gets to the point of overkill, although Keaton is always utterly watchable; self-absorbed, haunted by past failures, delusional and hoping against hope that this time he will triumph.
Although it all gets a little too histrionic for its own good, the scene where Riggan confronts the theatre critic (a sublime Lindsay Duncan) who can either make or break his production and ultimately him is a joy to behold.
Without doubt this film should kickstart Michael Keaton’s flagging career – art imitating life, and that’s exactly what was intended.