Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey (Photo: Warner)

BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)
★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Cathy Yan
STARS Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

In tackling the iconic role of The Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad, poor Jared Leto was so thoroughly rejected by the world-at-large that it’s no wonder a solo Joker movie was subsequently made with another actor installed in the part. Margot Robbie, on the other hand, had no such worry. As her character of Harley Quinn was easily the audience fave to emerge from that cinematic train wreck, her slot in any further projects was secured.

And thus we find Robbie (who, incidentally, picked up two Oscar nominations for other roles between then and now) headlining Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). In the DC Extended Universe, it doesn’t hold a candle to 2017’s Wonder Woman, still the only movie from this flubbed franchise that’s truly worth a damn. But when compared to the other DCEU entries, projects like Man of Steel, Justice League and, yes, Suicide Squad (reviewed here), it’s practically a godsend. It’s also too much of a good thing — scratch that; too much of an OK thing.

The film begins with an animated sequence that details the early years of one Harleen Quinzel, from her days as an abandoned kid to her career as a psychiatrist at Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum to her twisted relationship with The Joker. The film proper begins with Harley reeling after her breakup with The Clown Prince of Crime, as she throws herself into booze, bar fights, and blowing up the chemical factory that she and her insane ex considered their romantic spot.

Told in that schizophrenic flashback / flash-forward style meant to suggest that we’re in the presence of “hip” filmmakers (see also The Gentlemen), Birds of Prey finds Harley and her helpful voice-over narration repeatedly rewinding the story to outline important details. But the main thrust is that a ruthless kingpin, Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), is after a priceless diamond that was once owned by a Mafioso who was slaughtered alongside the rest of his family. There was one survivor — a small child — and she of course grows up to become one of this film’s heroines, an assemblage that includes the sonic-powered songstress Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the mysterious, crossbow-wielding Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the relentless cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, and how nice it is to again see her in a sizable role in a major film). There’s also young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), an ace pickpocket currently in possession of the stone that Sionis seeks.

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Birds of Prey (Photo: Warner)

Birds of Prey isn’t influenced by any DC flick as much as it swipes its blueprints from one of the Marvel crop. That would, of course, be Deadpool, as this new film shares that one’s R rating, copious amounts of bloodletting, and snarky attitude. But for all its nihilism and cynicism, Deadpool never felt particularly mean-spirited; this one, on the other hand, feels it’s important to show that Sionis is not just evil but reallllly evil by ordering his henchman (Chris Messina) to slice the skin off a little girl’s face before murdering her. The brutalization of women throughout Birds of Prey is meant to elevate the anticipated catharsis once these misogynistic men receive their deserved comeuppances, but no amount of justice or just deserts can alleviate some of the discomfort triggered by select earlier scenes.

More to the point, whereas Deadpool wore its dark humor like a perfectly tailored suit, the similar beats in Birds of Prey prove to be ill-fitting, like someone with a size 14 foot trying to cram it into a size 10 shoe. The film is self-satisfied to an absurd degree, given the number of gags that fall flat. The material is frequently forced rather than form-fitting, with the whimsy (a stuffed beaver as one of Harley’s pets?) often curdling like expired milk.

Still, the film’s galloping pace helps camouflage many of its flaws, and its bubblegum-colored visuals are appropriate and imaginative. As Harley Quinn, Robbie mugs more than acts, but this approach works just fine for her character. As for the rest of the players, there isn’t a single bad performance in the picture. Best of all might be Winstead, playing a particularly bad-ass Huntress. She has a quizzical look on her face for much of the picture — suggestive of Martin Scorsese trying to understand a Marvel movie — and her demeanor makes her stand apart from the others. Huntress is efficient but also a bit awkward, as if she’s someone who doesn’t fall into this hero act as naturally as the others. Robbie might be the marquee attraction in Birds of Prey, but it’s Winstead who emerges as the cat’s meow.

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