VENICE (Reuters) - Michael Keaton opened the 71st Venice Film Festival on Wednesday starring in "Birdman" as a washed-up actor of superhero movies trying to make a comeback, a bit like the former "Batman" star himself who gives the festival an opening lift.
The film by Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu brings in the starpower that Venice, the world's oldest film festival, needs to keep itself from being sidelined by the celebrity magnet of Cannes in May and the industry powerfest that the Toronto Film Festival, opening next week, has become.
Noted for arthouse movies "Babel" and "21 Grams", Inarritu switches gears in this Fox Searchlight production that also stars Emma Stone as Keaton's daughter fresh from drug rehab, Naomi Watts as an actress desperate to make it on Broadway and Edward Norton as the foil to Keaton's character, Riggan Thomson.
Inarritu, in his fifth feature film, throws in touches of Latin American magical realism, plus a few superhero style car-crashes and a colossal, computer-generated monster - but the effects are pretty much an afterthought.
The production is more like a filmed version of a play, set mostly on stage and backstage at a Broadway theater where the Keaton character hopes to make a comeback in his own theatrical adaptation of a short story by the late American writer Raymond Carver, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love".
Inarritu filmed the movie in faux single-take style, so although the action takes place over several days, it seems like the camera never stops.
The plot deals with the question that haunts Riggan, who gave up being the superhero Birdman, much like Keaton gave up doing Batman in 1992 after two films: Do I still exist?
"I wasn't present in my own life," Riggan says as he wrestles with not having been there for his daughter's birth, and what he feels is his blame for her addiction and the breakup of his marriage to his wife, played by Amy Ryan.
He has sunk far from the heady heights of his "Birdman" character - but he cannot desert the role forever, not just because it shaped his life, but also because the voice of the character haunts him, telling him that he is so good that he soars above the rest.
The plot allows Inarritu to play with the age-old love-hate relationship between Broadway and Hollywood, which is brought into the open when a venomous New York Times critic, played by Lindsay Duncan, tells Riggan her review will kill his play.
In the lead up to opening night, Keaton and Norton play out an almost Shakespearean drama, something like Iago and Othello, with co-star Norton trying to show up Keaton's Riggan character as a Hollywood has-been with no place on Broadway.
Stripped to the two-hander of Keaton-Norton, it's a gripping tour de force. Inarritu's penetrating camera sees it from all angles, including a manic scene of Keaton trashing his dressing room after Norton has seemingly crushed his ego completely.
It also points up the role of social media, with some of the antagonism between the two men leading to public displays, on stage by Norton, outside in Times Square by Keaton clad only in his underwear when he is accidentally locked out of the theater, both antics getting huge play on Twitter.
Federico Pontiggia, a critic for the Italian website Fatto Quotidiano.it, said the film was a "powerful analysis of the crush between the social network and social life".
Trade publication Variety, in an online review, called it "a triumph on every creative level, from casting to execution, that will electrify the industry, captivate arthouse and megaplex crowds alike, send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to Keaton’s career".
(Michael Roddy is an arts and entertainment correspondent for Reuters. The views expressed are his own)
(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Crispian Balmer)