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Michael Keaton (left) and Edward Norton in ‘Birdman’
Michael Keaton (left) and Edward Norton in ‘Birdman’

Film Review: Birdman

An edgy existential comedy

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a fading movie star who once enjoyed demigod-like popularity as superhero Birdman, but is now battling his ego and alter ego, and is riddled with self-doubt. That Keaton played the caped crusader twice (Batman and Batman Returns) adds an obvious layer to the story.

Thomson is attempting to resurrect his career by directing and acting in a Broadway play, assisted by his friend, lawyer and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and dysfunctional daughter Sam (Emma Stone). The play’s cast consists of a struggling actor looking for her big Broadway break (Naomi Watts), a method actor with his own ego issues (Edward Norton), and an all-too malleable second lead (Andrea Riseborough).

After helming Amores Perros, Babel and Biutiful, director Alejandro González Iñárritu moves to an experimental comedy about seeking answers to existential questions like imprint and immortality. In the opening shot, Thomson is levitating in his dressing room, dressed merely in his “tighty whiteys". From get-go, you are compelled to throw reason and reality out of the window.

Along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu shapes a seemingly endless (there are clandestine cuts), one-take narrative accentuated by a loud percussive score that underlines particular scenes.

The camera waits for people to move in and out of the frame or follows the actors in tightly choreographed sequences. The film is as much about the technique as the comic chaos unfolding on screen as Thomson struggles to regain relevance by mounting a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

The dialogues are pithy and rife with comments on pop culture and the state of the film industry, particularly the superhero franchise phenomenon. In a scene that shows her arguing with her father, Sam says: “I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist." It’s also delightful to see actors like Keaton and Norton go head-to-head.

At times Birdman is weighed down by the director’s need for technical cleverness and the overuse of the background score, but in this season of hotly contested films (mostly biopics), here is something original and edgy, peopled with characters holding on to their hubris as they teeter on the edge of reality and illusion.

As Norton’s character says, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige."

Birdman, released in theatres on Friday.

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