BIRDMAN (M18)/119 minutes/Opens tomorrow/*****
The story: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor who walked away from lucrative sequels featuring him as the superhero Birdman. Now, with troubled daughter Sam (Emma Stone) by his side as his personal assistant, he wants to stage a high-minded play on Broadway to win critical respect. But his self-doubt drives his best friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) batty, even as Jake is trying to corral a rambunctious cast that includes the acclaimed but narcissistic Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) and the ambitious, insecure Lesley (Naomi Watts).
This time of the year, when so many Oscar-bait movies take on social justice topics to make the audience feel somehow morally better for having seen them, this one goes the other way.
Director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wants audiences to feel grubby, not elevated, as he takes them down into the belly of Broadway, where people bicker and drive themselves insane over trivial issues such as reviews, hiring hot actors and a couple of lines in a script.
Inarritu has been guilty of churning out self-important, awards-oriented material - Babel (2003) and Biutiful (2010) come to mind.
His new movie sees him snapped out of his doldrums. This work defines talkiness and much of the dialogue is confrontational.
In almost every scene, characters use language as weapons - to manipulate, unnerve, distract and, of course, browbeat.
The zingers and comebacks just keep coming - just as you are savouring one, another jumps out.
That velocity of speech, coupled with a soundtrack that leans heavily on the solo drumming of Grammy-winning jazz percussionist Antonio Sanchez and the single-take camera work of Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, 2013; Children Of Men, 2006), is a giddying, at times exhilarating, experience, especially when it is not clear if what is being shown is actually happening.
On screen is the world processed through Riggan's ego, sitting atop a mind fracturing under stress.
Riggan just wants everyone to love him on his own terms; it just so happens that, except for a few, the people from whom he craves love and respect happen to be sharks.