It starts with the poster and never looks back.
It’s as if Alejandro González Iñárritu and Michael Keaton have been on an unintended collision course towards the inevitable making of this arthouse meets superhero movie – although Kick Ass managed to subvert the latter genre it only did so on a single dimension; this does so on multiple levels.
To even allude to it as a Superhero movie is, of course, to massively understate what is a film bristling with more ideas than a month-long sabbatical at Stephen Hawking’s house.
It starts with the poster, moves onto the credits (the best I’ve seen for years) and then; scene one act one.
Every scene brings another “how did he do that?” in fact “how did he think of that?” moment.
In fact the scenic structure is the first big jaw drop aspect of the movie given that, essentially, scene one act one is all there is – it, arguably, never ends. Cleverly stitched together in the edit suite and captured by Emmanuel Lubezki the whole film is an homage to the ambitions of Orson Welles in his monumental “El Rancho” tracking shot from Citizen Kane.
Lubezki’s camera prowls the dressing rooms, corridors and backstage areas of a Broadway Theatre endlessly, where washed up ex-superhero (the Birman of the title) star, Riggan Thomas played in a career defining performance by Michael Keaton is mounting a self-funded, self-adapted, self-directed and self-starring play of a Raymond Carver short story.
The trouble is; it sucks.
But after the weak link in the four man cast is nearly decapitated during late rehearsals, a big box office stand in, Mike Shiner, ((played magnificently by Edward Norton) takes his place the day before the first preview. Shiner may be a true star vehicle and ‘box-ioffice gold’ but his highly contrived method-acting is a massive pain in the ass and causes mayhem both on-stage and off.
Meanwhile, trying to direct the volatile Shiner plus his equally volatile girlfriend (more of a cameo but again brilliant by Angela Risborough) Keaton’s character starts to fall apart, simultaneously haunted by his alter ego (the bird man that is embedded in his avian brain).
The action is relentless, breathtaking actually, as it is driven along by an incessant jazz drum solo that peppers the score.
Keaton looks and acts more and more like Bill Murray in his prime but his performance goes far deeper than anything I’ve ever seen Murray achieve (with the possible exception of Lost in Translation). It’s dark, tragic and sensitive.
The awful relationship he ‘enjoys’ with his clearly disgruntled ‘assistant’ and rehabilitating daughter, Sam, played to scuzzy perfection by Emma Stone is remarkable. In one scene Stone berates Keaton for his inept fathering skills to the point that you genuinely think her head might actually burst open. It’s electrifying.
As the frankly bizarre story unfolds more and more levels of pathos, black humour and tension are introduced; the pursuit of short term fame is brought brilliantly to life when Keaton ‘trends on twitter’ after an inadvertent stroll through Times Square in his jockeys.
The veneer of fame and the dubiousness of acting ability – “You’re a celebrity not an actor” sneers New York Times theatre critic played viciously by Lindsay Duncan in another notable cameo just before she sets out to crucify him: just because she can.
And we meet up with Keaton’s superhero past an an entirely unexpected way.
The opening night of the play brings a denouement that I dare you to predict.
I’ve had my eye on Alejandro González Iñárritu since his debut feature in 2000, the heartbreaking Amores Perros, through 21 Grams and Babel and most recently the battering ram that is Biutiful. All these movies deal in big issues around the human condition. All break your heart in different ways and all are light, very light, in humour. So for him to create a comic masterpiece such as this is all the more disconcerting really. It has many, many laugh out loud moments but at its heart lies yet another big human condition movie.
How can one create true happiness in life when relationships are such fragile things in the world of celebrity?
What is art?
What indeed is fame?
As Andy Warhol said; we all have 15 minutes of it.
The trouble is, for many, the real stuff is like crack cocaine and we all know that’s a hard one to kick.