Is using terms like “metacinema” and “magical realism” a little pretentious? If so, I apologize. I just get excited when I can use all those fancy lit terms I learned in school! Because Birdman is definitely a film worthy of fancy lit terms. This is one that I honestly didn’t expect to see for awhile. I’d heard a little bit about it and thought it looked interesting, but I also thought the trailer made it look too artsy and cool to last in my local theater longer than a week or two. But when rave reviews starting blowing up WordPress and I checked to see if it was playing, apparently the movie gods were smiling upon me because there it was.
Let’s face it: superheroes have taken over our media. Like angry Bruce Banner, they have Hulked out, exploding into our theaters, pushing their way into our TV lineups, and breaking the internet with every new announcement for future projects. Don’t get me wrong, I geek out over every bit of it (just see here, here, or here), but after all that madness, it was really refreshing to dive into a film that looks at the superhero frenzy from a different perspective: that of actor who once played such a superhero but has since fallen out of the limelight. With former Batman Michael Keaton in the leading role, Birdman becomes a film that is sharply funny, a little sad, and brilliantly self-aware.
Synopsis: “A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.” –Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb
The Good: So much. Let’s start with the meta stuff. Are you guys familiar with the term “meta?” I don’t want to be a patronizing douche, but I also don’t want to leave anyone in the dark. Basically, meta refers to when art is aware of itself as art, which in turn reminds the viewer/reader that he or she is taking in art. Weird, I know. But it can actually be very effective. Take the Scream franchise, for example—the characters in those films constantly discuss predictable moments and character types in horror movies. Heck, those films even take meta a step further by introducing films within the films based on events of the previous films. Yikes. Does that make any sense? Anyway, well-done metafilms can be really cheeky and fun, and Birdman is just that. Just like Keaton gave up the Batman cowl for what he hoped to be bigger and better things, so did his character, Riggan, cast aside his Birdman wings for similar dreams. In the film, Riggan has a love-hate relationship with that iconic character he abandoned, and I imagine Keaton feels similarly about his caped crusader. You can’t help being aware of both the film and the real world when you’re watching—especially when the film mentions the names of real actors who have taken on other superhero roles (like in a very funny series of lines about Jeremy Renner). Oh, and the film also focuses on a play, which is another little deliciously meta touch. But you’re probably tired of hearing about meta stuff. Let’s talk about magical realism, another term I will attempt to define (just in case). This is when magical elements are incorporated into an otherwise realistic environment. Most superhero films wouldn’t be considered magical realism because they’re too far-fetched, but Birdman is largely realistic—the one exception being that the character of Birdman seems to have gotten under Riggan’s skin in more ways than one, and Riggan is now prone to bouts of telekinesis and levitating…at least maybe. Since this is mostly from Riggan’s perspective, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s the product of a sleep-deprived, troubled mind. But that’s also part of what makes it interesting. Gees. This chunk of text has gotten huge and I barely feel like I’ve scratched the surface! I’ve rambled, haven’t I? Let’s hurry on. The whole cast is fantastic. I’d say Keaton is a shoe-in for an Oscar nom, and I also wouldn’t be surprised to see one for Edward Norton, who shines as an extremely talented yet arrogant and slightly pretentious Broadway star. Emma Stone does a great job digging into a character with a dark past—Riggan’s daughter, Sam, who is a recovering drug addict. Oh, and Zach Galifianakis gets to play a character who isn’t completely ridiculous, and it actually works for him. The script is wonderful, the story is fascinating, I love that the film feels like one long tracking shot, and THAT DRUM SCORE. So cool.
Favorite Scene: I used to do theater, and I can confirm that there’s a scene that is literally every actor’s worst nightmare. I don’t want to reveal much, but it involves the possibility of missing a cue via a hilarious and extremely awkward misadventure.
The Bad: I have very little to complain about. I will say that though Norton is perfect in his role, I was a little disappointed with the treatment of his character sometimes. I would’ve liked to see more of his reaction after the big moment of the film at the end. His character is also weirdly different around Stone’s character, which I found to be a little bit off (even though I understand why it was done). Speaking of Stone, it was so nice to see her in a more serious role that I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of her character, particularly since she and Keaton have a nice father-daughter dynamic. Also, even though this film is clearly not in the superhero world, I wouldn’t have minded knowing a little bit more about the title superhero himself, and I especially wouldn’t have minded seeing more of him since he has a really cool look. Birdman becomes like the devil on Riggan’s shoulder, popping up for bitter and bitingly funny remarks in such a gravelly voice that the whole theater rumbles. More of that certainly wouldn’t have been bad. But really, all of these qualms are pretty minor.
Least Favorite Scene: …I don’t think I have one. Though I will say that depending on the kind of person you are, you might not like the ending. Even though it leaves some big questions, I really liked it.
To Sum It Up: You know those films that the more you think about them the more you like them? Birdman is one of those. It’s a wonderful blend of humor and drama with a pinch of magical realism and a big spoonful of meta—a recipe for Oscars, I’d say. It might be a little out-there for some viewers, but if you consider yourself a Keaton or Norton fan, or even if you’re just looking for a fresh spin on all this crazy superhero stuff, I’d recommend this one without hesitation.
My Grade: A