Birdman (Fox Searchlight, R)

birdman 75It’s so good it’s distracting, and in this case, that isn’t a bad thing.

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When Alejandro González Iñárritu first broke on the American scene with 2000’s Mexican film Amores Perros, I was excited. And when his follow-up came out—2003’s American production 21 Grams, reteaming him with Perros screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga—I was still enthusiastic, even if it wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor. Then came 2006’s Babel. It was hardly bad, but really clarified the diminishing-returns action in the Iñárritu/Arriaga collaboration, and felt like a poor rip-off of their prior work. At that point the team split, and Iñárritu’s next film—2010’s Biutiful, co-scripted by Iñárritu  himself and not by Arriaga at all—was a step in the right direction, but hardly as good as what Iñárritu seemed to be capable of.

But now he returns with Birdman (subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which is easily his best film. He hits all the right notes here, and yet it doesn’t seem like the work he’s done in the past, even the good stuff. Once again, he’s serving as his own cowriter (alongside Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, which, subtracting Dinelaris, is the team that wrote Biutiful), proving once and for all that he didn’t ever really need Arriaga in the first place (even if the latter does sometimes turn out good scripts). Meanwhile, Iñárritu has for the first time enlisted fellow Mexican Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuarón’s and Terrence Malick’s usual cinematographer, indisputably one of the best in the world. And it’s Lubezki’s cinematography that’s going to be the biggest talking point of this film, much like the plot structure was for Pulp Fiction when it first came out. Birdman’s nearest analogue in the way it’s shot is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, but even that isn’t quite right. Maybe mix Rope with Russian Ark and make the film not actually shot in real time, and you’re getting closer. It’s so good it’s distracting, and in this case, that isn’t a bad thing (with no slight against the plot). The Best Cinematography Oscar is Lubezki’s to lose at this point, and he’s already the defending champion, what with his prize for last year’s Gravity under his belt.

The acting’s great, too. Of course, this is being billed as a big comeback vehicle for Michael Keaton, and, in its depiction of an aging actor who’s best known for playing a superhero named Birdman some decades ago, borrows readily from his own biography and cache. Keaton’s character is named Riggan and he’s mounting an ambitious stage depiction of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” that he wrote, directed, and stars in. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton turn up as actors in this play (with Norton being especially fine; it seems like it’s been awhile since we’ve seen him on his A-game). Zach Galifianakis tones down his usual shtick and essentially plays the straight man as Riggan’s manager, Jake, and, in the film’s best performance, we have Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s post-rehab, too-honest daughter. Stone’s big characteristic thus far is that she’s immensely likable—and her charms aren’t lost on me—but it wasn’t until this film that I learned she can actually act. She’s great here, and, like Lubezki, has at least a nomination in her future.

But wait: This all sounds pretty dry so far. A film about an aging actor staging a new play, most notable as a film for being shot in a tricky style? That’s not going to bait a whole lot of people. It’ll help get the masses in the door that Riggan is haunted by Birdman himself, who dispenses praise and criticism in equal measure, and sometimes flies and makes stuff blow up, as audiences like. Riggan, who is presumably also Birdman in real life (to some extent, anyway), has some special powers that not only help the narrative be less musty, but also add another element of WTF as to how they pulled off some of these shots. The end result is that the film feels like an extended magic trick, with something for nearly everyone: film nerds, mainstream movie lovers, Oscar voters, and critics alike. | Pete Timmermann

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