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film review

Michael Keaton is receiving Oscar buzz for his self-reflexive role as actor Riggan Thomson.Atsushi Nishijima

My, but the new Alejandro G. Inarritu movie, Birdman, has some fascinating things going on. Foremost, there's a wonderful visual stunt, in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film Rope, in which the film unfolds as a long sinewy dance, that starts in to jazz drumming (Antonio Sanchez), moves on through Mahler cello moans and back to jazz. The great cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men), weaves his roving lens through the corridors of St. James Theater on West 44th Street, through the claustrophobic corridors, in and out of dressing rooms, onstage and from the rafters, up noses, and under covers and on to rooftops. The technique casts a spell, as the actors' entrances and exits are choreographed around the camera's movement.

Among the living beings who are strung along the camera's moving thread, the foremost is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton in a self-reflexive role), a 60-ish former Hollywood actor, still known for his trilogy of Birdman action movies decades before. Now Riggan has staked his money and aspirations of artistic respectability on a vanity project Broadway play, and, of course, this being the theatre, everything possible goes farcically wrong.

The troubles start with the improbable material. The play that Riggan has adapted is a dramatization of Raymond Carver's chillingly bleak title story to his 1981 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The story, which appears to be an update on Plato's Symposium, features two couples getting sloshed on gin, swapping stories about suicide, wife abuse and a horrific car accident. Much of Carver's story makes it into the film, along with some additional scenes that return to the theme of death as life's final scorekeeper, a theme that Inarritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros, Babel) has plumbed with dreamy morbid ardour.

The cast of this four-hand play includes Riggan (in the starring role, of course) as Mel, an alcoholic abyss-treading cardiologist. There's Lesley (Naomi Watts) another insecure movie star making her Broadway debut as his stage wife. Then there's Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is Riggan's younger, unappreciated lover. As a last-minute stand-in is Mike (Edward Norton), Lesley's strutting cock of a movie-star boyfriend who arrives knowing everyone's lines, and with some rewrites in mind. He proceeds to try to take over the entire production.

In the backstage realm, we have Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan's fresh-from-rehab daughter who is working as his antagonistic personal assistant. There's Jake (Zach Galifianakis), a fretful lawyer and yes-man producer, and Mike's noble, disappointed wife (Amy Ryan), who pops in a couple of times to wish him well.

There's one more important figure, the title character Birdman, Riggan's superhero character from decades ago, who lives on as a growling negative voice inside the cracked actor's head. Nothing's necessarily entirely literal here, but Birdman is not just the garden variety voice of inner self-loathing, and closer to depressive psychosis. Among Riggan's fantasies is that he can levitate: When we first see him, he's sitting in his underwear in mid-air in his apartment-dressing room. Riggan can move and destroy objects with his mind, rather than just smash them in a bad temper. His madness is distinctly thespian-centric: He believes he can will himself to be someone much greater than he is.

Since Birdman had its premiere in Venice in September, there's been tremendous buzz about the film. There's the shooting style, of course, but especially compelling is Keaton's antsy, funny physical performance that's as much about Riggan's physical deterioration as a mental breakdown. As his opposite, the seemingly virile usurper, Norton's Mike, struts and frets and shows off. And shows how an actor can take a speech and kill it, then smirk at his own gift.

At the same time, there's something about Birdman that makes it, while memorable, less than brilliant. There's something inherently mechanical about the Noises Off style, the farcical pairing off, the jealous triangles, the gratuitous lesbian smooch, a quickie on the catwalk. It's the sort of familiarity that would be easier to enjoy if the writing had the panache of the visual style and the big performances. When you think about some of the memorable contemporary plays about performance (John Osborne's The Entertainer, Ronald Harwood's The Dresser), the language pops, with poetic intensity and epigrammatic snap that adds to the intoxication. There are four writers credited (Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo and Inarritu) and often, the script feels as if they traded off scenes and punched up dialogue without creating an organic package. There's lots of vaguely clever name-dropping (from Justin Bieber to Roland Barthes), but also speeches that creak like an unoiled pulley from up in the rafters.

Earlier on, there's a scene where Sam (Stone) expresses her rage with her father (he was away a lot) with a diatribe about how irrelevant he is in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Never mind that this supposed dichotomy between the turmoil of artistic creation and cheap instant fame (which Riggan eventually achieves with a highly public pants-down flourish) felt tired long before the first tweet was uttered. While Stone's visage in close-up is a mesmerizing thing (like an anime character, her face is half eyeballs), the monologue has all the fake profundity of an Aaron Sorkin-penned rant.

Among the clumsiest of scenes is one in which Riggan, having slipped back to drinking, runs into a fearsome theatre critic, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who, for some peculiar reason, handwrites her reviews while drinking at a bar next to the theatre. The imperious Tabitha declares to Riggan that she's going "to kill his play" on principle, because he's a toxic interloper in the world of serious theatre. That allows him to respond with a blistering takedown on the cowardice and creative deadness of critics. Maybe it's also a hallucination. Broadway as an inviolate temple of art? Since when – never.

Yes, at its best, Birdman soars, swoops and flutters with life and invention, but it parrots more than it speaks. You long for a writer as reliably, elegantly witty as Tom Stoppard, whose dramas are typically "backstage," or if not Stoppard, at least a verbal speed-puncher like Armando Iannucci (HBO series Veep), or if not Iannucci, someone as relentlessly inventive and obsessive as Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) to make you feel like somebody is trying to say something, rather than a writing team filling in the intelligent-sounding words to support the boisterous performances and the virtuosic camera dance.