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Birdman fails to take off

Review: Batman star Michael Keaton's praiseworthy turn as a washed-up movie star only just saves this comedy

By Andrew Johnston

Birdman (Or the unexpected virtue of ignorance) (15, 119 mins) Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Director: Alejandro G Inarritu. (3 out of 5)

Birdman - alternatively titled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance - is arguably the most disappointing film of the year. Not because it's terrible, but because it has a synopsis and a cast list so enticing that it could hardly be anything but a letdown.

Who wouldn't want to see Michael Keaton play a washed-up superhero actor attempting to mount a comeback as a Broadway director? Or Edward Norton as the intolerable, womanising method actor he begrudgingly hires to appear in his play? Or Emma Stone as Keaton's sarcastic, ex-druggie daughter?

We're talking Batman, the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy in a wry spoof on Hollywood.

Yet despite being shot in bravura fashion to give the impression of a single, continuous take, Birdman never quite takes flight.

It yearns to be a hard-hitting satire, but ultimately falls prey to the same plot contrivances and cop-out twists as the films it's mocking.

Filmed in and around New York City's real St James Theatre, it's certainly a visual treat, as the dull browns and reds of backstage mix with the light and sparkle of Broadway.

The cinematography is deserving of the highest praise, and the acting is already generating serious awards chatter. The film is also very funny in parts. However, as enjoyable as it is to hear Keaton's self-loathing Riggan Thomson decry a seedy dressing room because it "smells like balls" or to watch he and Norton's smug Mike Shiner wrestle semi-nude on the floor before the latter seduces Stone's Sam Thomson, the movie is scuppered by the fact we never care about any of these people.

Birdman is as hip, ironic and postmodern as movies come, but Inarritu and co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr and Armando Bo forgot to give it any heart.

The story follows Riggan's struggles to mount an adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, featuring himself in the principal role. In the lead-up to opening night, he contends with diabolical co-stars, suffers apparent lapses in sanity and tries to resist using his dubious clout as a one-time Tinseltown bigshot to promote the play.

Yet for all his efforts, Riggan finds his past follows him around in the shape of intrusive autograph hunters, sniffy theatre critics and scornful fellow thespians.

It's a delicious concept, and Keaton is his usual, mesmerising self. It's tempting to read Riggan's predicament as a thinly veiled version of the erstwhile Bruce Wayne's own, real-life situation. Indeed, the only significant difference seems to be that Riggan stopped playing Birdman after three movies, whereas Keaton downed Batman's cape and cowl after two.

The ultimate irony is the star could win the best actor Oscar for a film that essentially mocks his own career curve. If so, let's hope it leads to more work for one of modern cinema's most consistently underrated actors.

Having Keaton at its core, Birdman doesn't quite crash to earth, but with the superb acting and a cracking concept poorly served by underwritten characters, it hovers dangerously close.

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