Last year it was Gravity. This year the venerable Venice Festival opened its 71st edition with the equally star-studded Birdman, directed by the Mexican Alejandro Iñárritu. It proved another genuine coup for the festival as an expertly delivered black comedy about showbiz and celebrity, fantasy and reality.
Subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, it has Michael Keaton as a washed-up Hollywood star who once played the iconic role of Birdman desperately attempting to give himself some credibility by directing and acting in a Broadway play about love. It isn’t an easy business and, apart from sending him almost crazy, it inflicts considerable suffering not only on his fellow protagonists but his wife, daughter and mistress.
There is also Edward Norton as the intended, and troublesome, star of the show with whom Birdman clashes, Emma Stone as his drugged-up daughter and Andrea Riseborough as his long-suffering mistress. It’s a cast that seems to know about showbiz.
Keaton himself, once Batman, has never been better, giving a performance that suggests he knows just what an actor’s ego is about and which neatly deconstructs it throughout. The scene where he finally faces Lindsay Duncan’s all-powerful theatre critic is one of the best in a well-written film, based on a Raymond Carver story. And for sheer laughs, the sequence where a virtually naked Keaton, accidentally locked out of the theatre, walks through Times Square, signing autographs as he goes, takes some beating.
Iñárritu orchestrates all this with his usual sometimes eccentric aplomb, so that sophistication seems to go hand in hand with popular appeal. In that way Birdman is fitted up to be a considerable success. We may love celebrities but we enjoy even more getting the lowdown on them.