* "Birdman" is strong outing for Keaton, opener for Venice
* Change of pace for Mexican director Inarritu
* Mostly set in Broadway theatre, production resembles play
(Updates with director, Keaton comments)
By Michael Roddy
VENICE, Aug 27 Former "Batman" star Michael
Keaton gave a soaring start to the 71st Venice Film Festival on
Wednesday as a crestfallen superhero in "Birdman", a film its
Mexican director Alexandro Inarritu called an experiment that
could have failed miserably.
The film brings 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 industry powerfest the
Toronto Film Festival, which opens next week.
Noted for his arthouse movies "Babel" and "21 Grams",
Inarritu switches gears in this Fox Searchlight production, also
starring Emma Stone as Keaton's daughter, who is just out of
drug rehab, Naomi Watts as an actress desperate to make it on
Broadway and Edward Norton as the foil to Keaton's character,
"Michael was a pioneer of those superhero roles and having
some time and perspective I thought his knowledge about it, his
experience about it, will get something very powerful for this
film," Inarritu said at a post-screening press conference.
"Michael was crucial to make this film, without him I think
this film couldn't be made."
"Birdman", Inarritu's fifth feature film, is set mostly at a
Broadway theatre 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, who filmed the movie in a faux single-take style
so it looks like the camera never stops, said "Birdman" had been
an experimental project.
To make this point to the cast, he even sent them
photographs of the French high-wire artist Philippe Petit making
his famous unauthorised tightrope walk between the twin towers
of New York's World Trade Center in 1974.
"That was the image and the ambition of this film, or at
least the execution of this film was very much like this," he
said. "We were kind of crossing without a net with the
possibility to fail absolutely and miserably and be laughable."
The film shows touches of Latin American magical realism,
spectacular car crashes and a colossal, computer-generated
monster - but the effects are pretty much an afterthought to the
imposing, theatre-like production.
Keaton, asked if his Batman successes had undermined his
career, said his past superhero role was like "the giant
elephant in the room". But he joked that he'd recently returned
from Africa and that "I love elephants so I'm okay with the
elephant in the room".
The plot of "Birdman" deals with a question haunting Riggan,
who gave up being the superhero Birdman, much like Keaton gave
up doing Batman in 1992. Riggan asks himself: Do I still exist?
"I wasn't present in my own life," the character says as he
wrestles with having missed his daughter's birth, blaming
himself for her drug addiction and for the break-up of his
marriage to his wife, played by Amy Ryan.
He has sunk far from the heady heights of his "Birdman"
alter ego but is inexorably drawn back to the role.
Inarritu plays 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 intense, almost Shakespearean drama, with the critic 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, the scene is a
gripping tour de force and results in Keaton trashing his
dressing room after Norton has seemingly crushed his ego
Trade publication Variety has called the film "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
(Michael Roddy is an arts and entertainment correspondent for
Reuters. The views expressed are his own)
(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)