Magical realism is one of those things that needs to be handled with a fairly light touch. It’s far too easy to veer off into something silly (see, for example, Lost). When you use a light touch, however, you can end up with something a little better. Birdman is an interesting case of what happens when you combine magical realism with an unreliable narrator.
If you haven’t already seen it (it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography after all), it’s the story of a former Superhero Movie Star whose best days appear to be behind him who is putting on a Broadway play in an attempt to tell a *REAL* story. We see that he’s somewhat haunted by the superhero he used to play who tells him things he could easily mistake for truth (or, heck, maybe it is the truth… you can never tell with those guys) and, along the way, we touch on topics like online identity, celebrity gossip websites, the trials and travails of putting on a play, a mercurial (and intermittently priapic) Edward Norton, family, film and play criticism, and how much superhero movies ruin everything.
I’ll get to the punchline: I was amazed at the performances here. Michael Keaton was amazing, Edward Norton was, if anything, even better, Emma Stone was really, really good, and the cinematography was downright awesome. There are some seriously long takes in this movie with some seriously long stretches of long and complex dialog. I was struck by how very, very good everybody was at their craft here. The director trusted the actors, the actors trusted the director, and their accumulated skills created something where you couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
The problem, as I see it, was that these services were put towards a story that wasn’t really worth telling. It’s more that they were put towards a story that had a handful of people wanting to jab a bunch of stuff that really ticked them off. “Don’t you hate reviewers?”, you can see them saying. Actors put *EVERYTHING* on the line and reviewers show up, make a few bon mots, then leave without having risked a dang thing. “Don’t you hate TMZ?”, you can see them saying. We’re trying to create art and they’re talking about how we wore the wrong thing when walking our dog! “Don’t you hate an audience that prefers superheroes to REAL ART?”, you can see them saying… and, at the end, I felt like the movie was doing the same thing that it was criticizing. Under the guise of putting it all on the line, it took that opportunity to make a few bon mots.
Now, don’t get me wrong: the mots were really bon. If you’ve ever put on a play, you’ll have a bunch of little flashbacks. If you’ve ever hung out with an actor that took him or herself a little too seriously, you’ll have a bunch of little flashbacks. If you’ve ever thought “Man, superhero movies are ruining everything”, you’ll have a couple of belly laughs. (And there’s a wonderful scene involving a leap made by Michael Keaton that, right around the time you’ll wonder “how did they do that? I mean, like, in the story…”, they’ll explain it to you, and you’ll laugh again.) There are a lot of really wonderful experiences in this film.
It’s just at, at the end of the movie, I was struck by how the story they told oh-so-expertly wasn’t really that much of a story worth telling.
But if you can get over little things like the story, you’ll delight in quality of the tools they used to tell it.
Just like a blockbuster superhero flick.
So… what are you reading and/or watching?