Birdman: or the (expected) brilliance of magical realism and metacinema

birdman

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

birdman 2

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.

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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

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37 thoughts on “Birdman: or the (expected) brilliance of magical realism and metacinema

  1. Awesome analysis! I adored this as well, and my very minuscule issues are similar to yours. I just wish that the film spent more time in the latter half on obtaining some resolution on certain characters. Otherwise, this flew high!

    • “Flew high”–ha! I see what you did there. 😉 Yeah, I am inclined to agree with you about a slight lack of resolution for some characters toward the end, but the film was so awesome as a whole that I was able to get past that. Thanks! 🙂

  2. Good review Cara. It’s a very fun and exciting movie. However, when the style tones itself down and focuses on the smaller moments of these characters, it still works and makes this more than just a satire on everything in the acting world. It’s actually about real people, who just so happen to be really good at acting and know that it is all they can do with their lives.

  3. I can’t wait to see this! It’s only coming out here in the beginning of January, so I still need to wait a bit. Iñárritu has been one of my favourite directors since Amores Perros (if you haven’t seen that one, watch it, it’s really really good and very disturbing) and I’ve been dying to see this as long as I’ve known they are making it. 🙂

    • Oh you guys dont have it yet? Bummer! At least it’ll be there soon. I’ve never seen anything else from Inarritu, but I definitely feel like I should now. He has a very cool style. If you liked his other stuff, I’m sure you’ll like this. So good!

  4. Great review Cara, I love how you explained everything. Perfect! I can’t wait to see this you made me even more excited. So nice to see Keaton making a comeback he needs it, sort of like when Travolta needed it in the 90s.

  5. Birdman might be my favorite of the year. It’s simply spectacular and I haven’t had this much fun in a movie outside of a big superhero/blockbuster (or a really well-written indie romp) in some time. This is a movie i feel that kind of hovers in the weird, nebulous in-between status of not-quite-blockbuster, but not-quite-indie. It’s a perfect little gem for movie lovers I think more than general theater-goers.

    Cracking review Cara, love it.

  6. YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY that you got this earlier than you expected. This is something I have been excited about and that I really hope that I see soon, seems that it is well worth it. It has a solid cast that I am excited about 🙂

  7. Pingback: Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (2014) Review | Cinema Parrot Disco

  8. Reblogged this on Silver Screen Serenade and commented:

    One last Oscar nom reblog before the Oscars kick off tonight! This one’s a biggie. It’s nominated for a whopping NINE Oscars: Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Achievement in Directing, Best Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen), Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Achievement in Sound Mixing, and Best Achievement in Sound Editing. So let’s talk about one of my favorites, Birdman!

  9. Pingback: [NEWS] The Sunday Spew (22nd February 2015) | The Verbal Spew Review

  10. Completely agree with the ‘more you think, more you like’ point. This is such a smart and witty and culturally on-point film. Shame it’ll probably be referred to as the film that Boyhood lost out to. I don’t think it’s timeless, and I reckon Boyhood is. Excellent work Cara!

    Adam.

    • Ohhh I don’t know about that “the one that Boyhood lost to” business. Birdman pretty much rejuvenated Michael Keaton’s career–if nothing else it ought to be remembered for that. Plus I think it probably appeals to a wider audience than Boyhood. I think it’ll leave more of a lasting mark than you might think. But this is from someone who hasn’t seen Boyhood (and may never see it), so guess I’m a little biased. Lol. 😉 Thanks, Adam!

  11. I thought this movie was well made and acted but it really bothered me how the women are all shrill, judgmental shrews. When Naomi Watts is nearly raped on stage and the critic threatens to destroy the play before seeing it (who would say that even if they did it?) the movie lost me. I’m honestly kind of baffled by its success. It’s not terrible but would be way down my list of favorites

    • I definitely see your point about Naomi Watts–her character could’ve used a little more umph for sure. But I actually thought Stone’s character was well-developed and interesting–even if her attachment to Norton’s character seemed a little off to me. For me, this one totally worked. Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it as much!

      • Np. I seem to be the only one who was bothered by the depiction of women in the movie. Oh well. We all have those movies that everyone else likes but we dont. What can you do

  12. Pingback: Rapid Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) | The Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger

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