Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Runtime: 119 minutes
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has always displayed gifts as a storyteller and as a director of actors. His key weakness, largely due to collaborations with writer Guillermo Arriaga, is that he wants to stretch his vision over far too much. His 2006 drama Babel, though beautifully photographed and acted, was a manipulative and contrived mess. The intersecting stories felt like attempts at making something capital I important rather than authentically compelling. Even after parting ways with Arriaga, Inarritu fell into the same trap with 2010's Biutiful. Once again, strong visuals and powerful acting held back by an exasperating amount of plots and subplots.
Only four years later, however, Inarritu has finally shed his attempts at creating a sprawling game of narrative connect-the-dots. Working with three other credited writers, the director's latest, Birdman, finds him taking on a script actually worthy of his skills. Straightforward, lively, and devoid of narrative flab, Birdman is a bravura work of directing topped off with excellent performances (welcome back, Michael Keaton) and thrillingly ambitious photography.
With the globe-spanning finally laid by the wayside, Inarritu confines nearly all of Birdman in and around a prominent New York theater. It's there where, after a brief and cryptic opening, we meet aging star Riggan Thompson (Keaton), meditating in nothing but his underwear. Oh, and he's levitating about four feet off of the ground, or at least that's what his mind has him believe.
Riggan, as realized here, smartly incorporates Keaton's actual status as an actor, without going overboard with the parallels and references. In the late 80s and early 90s, Riggan was the star of the mega-successful Birdman superhero franchise. That is, until he declined to star in a fourth film, and promptly sent his career into a tailspin. Now, he sits in his dreary looking dressing room watching Robert Downey Jr. rake in obscene amounts of money in the wake of Hollywood's current superhero obsession.
The star dressing room for the Broadway stage is a dream for so many actors, including Riggan's costar Lesley (Naomi Watts). For the former lycra-clad superhero, however, it's much more; it's a chance to put it all out there for the world to see, and bring some credibility back to the faded glory of his name. From the moment that Riggan starts talking about his play - an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story - it's clear that his trip to the stage as writer, actor, and director is all that he has left in himself.
Despite the talented ensemble that fleshes out Birdman's insular world, and the strong moments they all have, one thing is clear: this is Keaton's movie, and it's going to live or die by what he delivers. He succeeds. I've started that short and simple so as to prevent myself from exploding with hyperbole. Electrifying is an easy word to throw around, but Keaton surely earns it. His casting (combined with the part's writing) gives him something to tap into, but it's more than that. In the two hours we spend with Riggan, Keaton captures all of his guilt, frustration, desperation, and rage with the precision of a tightrope walker.
The tightrope comparison applies not only to Keaton or his castmates, but Birdman as a complete entity. Filmed and edited to appear as if 95% of the movie occurs in an uninterrupted shot, Birdman's near-constant movement keeps the storytelling and performances consistently on edge. As it turns out, technical ambition works much better for Inarritu than narrative ambition.
But even though Inarritu has enlisted the great Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Gravity), the camerawork is always kept in service of the story and, more importantly, the characters. With the camera turning and circling and prowling all over the place nonstop, the early sequences of Birdman are unusually buoyant. It captures the frazzled, hypersensitive state of Thompson's mind as he's met with everything from stage disaster's to a hilariously difficult new cast member (Edward Norton). Better yet, the impressive technique on display ends up actually being in service of the film's endgame, rather than a mere bit of cinephile fan service.
Birdman is, for all the flourishes, a story about the art of saving artistic face while reasserting one's cultural relevance in the increasingly over saturated world of modern celebrity. Riggan does his best to care for his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), but his best involves hiring her as an assistant. He gets to technically spend time with his daughter, but still get use out of her as he prepares to take the defibrillator to his reputation.
Everyone else is merely a means to an end, though that doesn't mean that Inarritu and his writers have left the other headliners without anything to work with. Norton is especially fun as a pompous stage veteran Mike, providing the perfect external antagonist to drive the film's first half. And he's not just a grotesque caricature of a jerk. His interactions with Riggan contain their own cruel grains of truth, even if they've been distorted by Mike's own pretension and ego. Watts, meanwhile, is nervy and vulnerable, and brings sincerity (or at least the illusion of sincerity) to Lesley, a woman on the verge of finally having her break as she's entering a stage in life where good parts start to vanish. And, as Riggan's former and current partners, Amy Ryan (ex-wife) and Andrea Riseborough (friend with benefits) each lend their own valuable contributions to Birdman's tale of ambition in the face of dashed hopes and dreams. Lindsay Duncan also leaves her mark as the formidable New York Times critic out for blood, and able to deflect each and every verbal blow Riggan throws her way.
All of the above performers have their time to shine, but none impresses quite like Emma Stone. Sam's status as a former addict is never belabored by the writing or directing, leaving Stone room to tap into her character's past while still be able to forge her own future. As good as everyone is here, Stone's interactions with Keaton are the ones I was left desperate for more of when the lights came up. Too often type cast as sassy, cutesy romantic leads, she slips into this damaged, no-bullshit psyche beautifully. Finally, with room to do something truly different, Stone takes charge, and comes closest to matching Keaton in commitment to every unpleasant little detail doled out by the script. Mike presents an artistic challenge, and the booming voice in Riggan's head is a psychological challenge, but only Sam is the real deal when it comes to affecting legitimate reflection in Riggan's life. Everything else, despite all the fuss about reviews and box office intake, is secondary, regardless of what Riggan tells himself.
There is a deep sadness at the core of Birdman, but Inarritu and his collaborators have kept the whole enterprise such a dynamic, spontaneous atmosphere that there's little room to get mired in existential woe. Lubezki's camera demands that, even in the most painful confession, Riggan - and therefore, the audience - keep moving forward. Accentuated by a soundtrack composed of rapturous classical pieces and Antonio Sanchez's drums-only score, and Birdman takes on the movements of a piece of experimental jazz. It's always going, always searching for whatever happens next, thrilling you with its next camera movement or powerful feat of acting, only to go somewhere totally different at a moment's notice. Under Inarritu's firm hand in the director's chair, that vivaciousness is under tight control, yet maintains the feeling of being executed off of the cuff.
Many filmmakers, even great ones, struggle with the balance of style and substance. Inarritu, unlike many of his similarly-afflicted contemporaries, has both of them down. Yet on the matter of substance, he's only succeeded in investigating the emotional core of his stories and characters. The methods of investigation are where the problems show up. After Biutiful's false start at new beginnings, Birdman delivers the great film that Inarritu has had in him ever since he debuted Amores Perros nearly 15 years ago. Birdman's eventual, visceral impact is the direct result of this long-delayed artistic growth. Inarritu has spent his career swinging for the fences and tossing off foul balls. The difference, due to his newfound narrative focus, is that this time he's finally able to get the bat and the ball to connect at the sweet spot.