What exactly is Michael Keaton’s Birdman about?

Birdman Movie

I saw Birdman last night, as part of a renewed focus in December on seeing movies that will likely get nominated for a slate of Oscars. It was good, and interesting, and you can argue that a handful of people in the movie deserve to be nominated for some awards — Michael Keaton, yes, but also Ed Norton and Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. (Not all of them will, of course.) But when you see it, a series of questions will no doubt populate in your mind. They all really come back to one central place: what in the hell is this movie about?

(** Couple of spoilers ahead **)

On surface, here’s the plot: Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomsen, who used to be a billion-dollar-grossing action hero called Birdman. Apparently, there were three Birdman movies. Now he’s in the St. James Theater in New York City, adapting “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (a Raymond Carver short story) into a play. The lead actor in the play is terrible, and Birdman/Keaton/Thomsen basically drops a light on his head to get him out of the situation early in the movie. Ed Norton comes in as another actor, basically playing himself — or what we’ve come to view Ed Norton as — which is to say, a total asshole who believes acting is a craft above all. Naomi Watts is also in the play.

Amy Ryan, who many know as Beadie from The Wire, is Keaton’s ex-wife. He cheated on her a bunch, it appears, and they have one child together — that’s Emma Stone, and she’s fresh out of rehab. Zach G. is Keaton’s agent/best friend/lawyer.

The final essential thing to know here is that Keaton’s character seems to be talked to (“voices in the head”) by Birdman himself, and Keaton sometimes seems to have super powers as well — he can move stuff by flicking his wrist, etc.

OK, so … what does it all mean?

1. The Power Of The Creator: This film takes a lot of shots at people that judge — critics, Twitter users, etc. As such, it’s possible the deeper meaning is about the power of the creator. If you take the time to actually create something — to put a part of yourself out there to the world — you should be, theoretically, above all the noise that comes from what you create. In fact, in several scenes Keaton is literally soaring above New York or his audience or whatever. Complex metaphor, but maybe that’s the essential idea here.

2. Michael Keaton’s character is crazy: There’s actually a pretty defining line here. First off, there’s a sequence around the 3/4 mark of the movie where Keaton is, as mentioned above, soaring around NYC. We see him “land” near the theater, but in the same shot, we realize he actually took a cab there — we didn’t see that — and the cab driver needs his money. Essentially, he may be insane (Keaton’s character, that is) and simply imaging the flying-around. There’s also the issue of how Zach G’s character relates here. Whenever he arrives, whatever superpowers or fantasy was going on stops, and suddenly Michael Keaton’s Thomsen character looks like a crazy old dude throwing stuff around (not moving it with his mind). In sum, it could just be about the delusion of fame.

3. The Actor Above All: This is a little bit what Norton’s character is explicitly about — the craft of acting above everything — but you could argue the whole movie is a testament to what happens to actors when they inhabit certain characters (the characters stay with them, ultimately making them crazy) or what happens to actors when they forget they’re real people (they lose their families and their sanity). Interestingly, if the movie is about “Actor Above All,” that might help it with the Oscars. The Oscars love redemption stories — Keaton would be that this year — and they also love movies that continually drive home that the only thing you should be watching is movies, not plays or Netflix or TV. Birdman doesn’t totally do that, but it does strongly preach the craft of acting.

4. Meta-Deconstruction Of An Actor’s Ego: That’s how Variety described it. That works, for sure, but partially because we have ideas about Keaton and Norton already. When my wife and I finished seeing it, both of us kept coming back to the idea that the best parts of the movie are gloriously-shot and interesting, and the worst parts of the movie are entirely self-indulgent. 

5. The Ending: I won’t go into details on everything that happens at the end in case you haven’t seen the movie, but basically, an event happens and there’s two ways to perceive it. I’ll write more about that closer to the Oscars, but one possible perception would involve almost a punishment for Keaton’s character, and one possible perception would allow for you to believe deeply in what he was trying to accomplish (re-establishing his relevance, essentially). I lean one way, and others might lean the other way, but I think this is one of those movies where your perception of the ending factors deeply into what you think the movie was trying to articulate.

6. Brief Note Of Context On The Director: It’s Alejandro Inarritu. This is his fifth movie. Most of his other movies are complex looks at what happens to a group of people around a singular event — some of his notable titles are Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. This movie is a bit like that, in that the central event is Keaton trying to regain relevance and that impacts everyone around him in some way, but I’d say the bigger feat Inarritu pulls off here is the single-shot concept, detailed here.

If you have seen the movie, what did you think it was about? 

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. I thought that the movie Birdman was awful. The meaning was trivial, the score was irritating, the characters self indulgent fools and the moral–there was no moral. The ultimate (apparent) suicide of “Birdman” at the end was well deserved and appropriate for this over rated trash.

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