‘Birds of Prey’ makes for a frustrating flight

Margot Robbie had a busy weekend.

On Sunday, the Aussie actress attended the 92nd Academy Awards, not only as a member of the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” cast but also as a nominee, having been recognized for her role in “Bombshell.” She lost to Laura Dern in “Marriage Story.”

But the Friday before, Robbie released “Birds of Prey,” the Harley Quinn superhero spin-off in which she not only stars but produced. While the Oscars were no doubt a disappointment, “Birds of Prey” might be the bigger loss.

Let me be clear: I think Margot Robbie is a terrific actress. She’s certainly good in “Bombshell,” and she’s just as good here. And as a producer, Robbie has an excellent eye; “I, Tonya” led to her first Oscar nomination (and to a Supporting Actress win for Allison Janney). But for all but the most die-hard of Harley Quinn stans, “Birds of Prey” is an impenetrable mess, made only more annoying by its flashes of brilliance.

Harley Quinn, the Joker’s cotton candy-colored girlfriend, first appeared before audiences in “Suicide Squad,” an abysmal movie that solidified the DC Cinematic Universe as the roller coaster of quality it is today. While that film’s director, David Ayer, did not return for “Birds of Prey,” his fingerprints are all over it. From incessant flashes of on-screen text to obnoxious needle drops, “Birds of Prey” is much more of a “Suicide Squad” sequel than many moviegoers — myself included — might have expected.

But what I like about “Birds of Preys” is its vision. Director Cathy Yan has a distinct cinematic voice; she injects “Birds of Prey” with a manic energy that keeps you entertained even as it careens off course. In an era of soulless, studio-engineered blockbusters, the risks that she and Robbie take are especially exciting. These risks include, but are not limited to: a non-linear narrative, “Deadpool”-esque voice-over, animated sequences, musical numbers, blood, guts and swear words galore. I hesitate to call “Birds of Prey” a good movie, but it’s never a boring one.

The story? Simple: Harley and Joker broke up. For Harley, it’s less of a break-up and more of an identity crisis. Who is the Joker’s girlfriend if she’s no longer the Joker’s girlfriend? It’s a clever conceit from which the film’s feminism naturally flows (hence its “Birdman”-like subtitle, “The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”).

Without the protection of Mr. J, Harley’s got a target on her back. Enter homicidal night club owner Roman Sionis (a camp and crazy Ewan McGregor), who wants Harley’s head for a number of reasons (including the fact that she “voted for Bernie”). As she evades his capture, she crosses paths with a detective (Rosie Perez), a singer (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), an assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a pick-pocketing little girl (newcomer Ellen Jay Basco), all of whom are on Roman’s hit list themselves. To survive the night, they have to work together.

If you think that’s a lot of characters for a 100-minute movie, you’re right. All of the actresses do a fine job, but their characters are sparsely developed; with the exception of Harley herself, they amount to little more than sassy stick figures. And they’re only brought together in the final 15 minutes, so their chemistry is awkward and the payoff is weak.

As for the production as a whole, the budgetary constraints are painfully obvious. The sets are creative and colorful, but Matthew Libatique (a normally fantastic cinematographer) shoots them with such dim lighting that it’s almost like they’re being hidden. And the costume design is inspired, but only if you’re Harley; otherwise, you look like you shop at Party City.

But what do I know? According to Rotten Tomatoes, I’m in the minority on “Birds of Prey;” if you’re stoked to see it, by all means, do. But like any sugar rush, the highs are fleeting compared to the crash. 4/10

This review was originally published on February 12, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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