Monday, February 17, 2020

Tears of a clown


Directed by Kathy Yan
Written by Christina Hodson

Spoiler alert: moderate

First thing: I like the Goddamn name, and it's awfully, awfully hard to square the way that Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) instantly emerged as such a punchline of try-hard indulgence that its exhibitors actually saw fit to change it (to something infinitely less-interesting) with the way that, for example, back in the winter of 2014, everybody thought Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was so clever, and so appropriate, and so charming.  I mean, Jesus.  At least Birds of Prey knows how parentheses work.

And it's definitely appropriate: if Birds of Prey only intermittently lives up to the wacky romp promised by its wacky, rompy title, it absolutely lives up to those parentheses (though even then, maybe they ought to have gone really experimental, and switched 'em around), because way, way too much of the movie that its title describes is, quite literally, an afterthought.  Birds of Prey has its good points, it really does, but at its worst it is one of the most structurally-challenged pieces of screenwriting to have ever been afflicted on the superhero genre in all its forty-two years of existence (and it's not exactly a genre celebrated for its structurally-sound scripts in the first place), and it's downright bonkers just how curlicued and static a plot like this one can get, before finally it gets through its exposition-laden set-up, at which point it climaxes, then ends.  This isn't even really an exaggeration: it's still setting up characters—titular characters!—at, like, the hour twenty mark.

Theoretically, it ought to have been extremely simple.  Birds of Prey begins sometime after Suicide Squad, a film that's only glancingly referred to here, not unlike the way that Aquaman felt obliged to reference Justice League, that is, acknowledging you've already seen a movie with this character in it, then asking if we can forget about it and move on.  Well, in the aftermath of that adventure, or whatever it was, Dr. Harleen "Harley Quinn" Quinzel (Margot Robbie) suffered a break-up with her longtime partner in supercrime, the Joker (not Jared Leto, nor anybody, and this is still weird to me, in that we're expected to engage with the story of a Harley Quinn who has never had more than forty seconds of meaningful on-screen interaction with the most important figure in her life).  Dumped and hurting, things get worse for poor, crazy Harley, since it turns out the only restraint on the long-simmering anger of the innumerable low-lives she'd offended or abused during her tenure as the Joker's girlfriend is the fact that she was the Joker's girlfriend, and now, of course, she is not, and so now all of Gotham City has become a gauntlet that Harley must face if she wants to survive as her own woman.

This is, apparently, not enough for this movie, though it would seem to me to be exactly enough: "a colorful, chaotic-evil psychopath with a funny accent, a knowledge of the martial arts, and a penchant for random violence, deprived of her better-known man and thrown into a shark tank full of funny C-list DC villains who are even worse people than she is, serving as some kind of a metaphor," was probably the only plot the movie ever truly needed.  But reasonable minds can differ, I guess: Birds of Prey conjures up a much, much more convoluted scaffolding around it, involving the theft of a maguffiny diamond by young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), which, unfortunately for Cassandra, had been the lynchpin of a bid for the total takeover of Gotham City's underworld by brutal crime lord Roman "Black Mask" Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his torture-prone counterpart, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).  It is against this diamond which Harley bargains her life, offering to retrieve it for the villain.  Of course, Roman immediately goes ahead and puts an open bounty out on Cassandra's head anyway, which puts us back at square one (Harley vs. everybody) with the least efficiency possible, though on the plus (?) side, it has managed to place Harley in a position where she has to safekeep a human life, which means, inevitably, personal change and growth.  As Roman puts it so eloquently in the climactic sequence: "Ew."

In the meantime, the plot rolls along and picks up all sorts of lint, predominantly in the form of the eventually-so-called Birds of Prey: Dinah "Black Canary" Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Roman's club with her own agenda; Helena "Huntress" Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), sole survivor of the massacre of her Mafia family, and true heir to the diamond, out for revenge; and Renee "Renee Montoya" Montoya (Rosie Perez), a good cop let down by institutional sexism in the GCPD.  Obviously, one of these things looks like homework and vegetables, and it absolutely is.  (Homework and vegetables might be good for you, but what's not is doing Birds of Prey without Barbara Gordon.  Once Batgirl, later Oracle, founder of the Birds of Prey in the comics, it's kind of like rebooting the X-Men without Charles Xavier.  In fact, it's exactly like that, in more ways the one.   Then again, this movie might just hate Batgirl in all her forms: whatever business it thinks it has rendering such a stock nobody out of the raw material of Cassandra Cain, one of the most conceptually-fascinating of all Bat-characters, I'm sure I don't know.)

It's all still serviceable, though what this winds up becoming in practice is a first act repeated approximately five times, one for each side character plus maybe two or three for Harley herself, who narrates the whole spiel, routinely breaking the fourth wall in her cracked and flighty manner.  There is an enormous amount of Deadpool in this, though it might be better-motivated here; there is an explicit indication that the film can't help but be a jumbled-up mess of chronology, as Harley belatedly remembers details that turn out to be important.  Yet what we wind up with is less the slippery subjective state of a psychotic, and more the rambling circumnavigation of one painfully bad storyteller.  (And so it's strange to say that Birds of Prey remains a vast improvement for screenwriter Christina Hodson.  Her previous script was Bumblebee, which is so structurally sound, and nothing else, that it'll make your face go numb.)

It may have made a difference if it was better than indifferent to the numerous secondary characters it introduces, but the fact is, Birds of Prey is "Birds of Prey" only to the extent that the Birds of Prey can buffer out the scenes and set-pieces involving Harley Quinn and the fantabulous emancipation thereof.  It's a movie that has about eight characters and only two performances, and first and foremost amongst them is obviously Robbie's, which makes sense insofar as (again, shades of Deadpool) she basically willed this movie into existence as a vehicle for her Harley Quinn.

There's weaknesses inherent in the role as written—like everybody else, Harley needed a second pass on her dialogue (it's oddly not very funny or screwball, despite being a comedy with a screwball lead, though it at least groks that it should be funny, which places it miles ahead of DC's previous movie involving clownish mayhem)—but the movie is undeniably alive and electric whenever Robbie's on screen, and the best parts of its quieter stretches always involve Robbie operating at a complete right angle to consensus reality, to the extent of almost literally acting in a different movie than everybody else, even if they're sharing the same two-shot.  (But then, if it's good when she's detached from reality, it's even better when she's divorced from it entirely: I'd have been ready to call the utterly-unexpected Gentlemen Prefer Blondes homage the best part of the movie hands-down if it had the guts to last more than forty seconds.  It's somewhat obvious that director Cathy Yan probably wanted to do a lot more in a similar vein to that, but unfortunately somebody did not let her; which is another way it resembles Deadpool, in that it's actually pretty formally safe for a movie that deals expressly with a cartoon psychotic, though it offers more flashes of the kind of invigorating insanity that point to a much more interesting film.)

The other performance, anyway, is McGregor's, who puts in nowhere as much work as Robbie (certainly not physically, as I don't think he does anything in the whole movie more taxing than waving his arms around), but he does manage to get a lot of mileage out of Roman as, effectively, the gay Joker.  I could quibble with the endless echoes of the Joker within the Bat-canon, and I doubt we've come far enough that we should just bring back the Evil Queer and call him funny; but, at the very least, "gay Joker" is something you can respond to, and something that allows for some energy and joy in McGregor's rendition of it.

Few such opportunities are offered to anybody else: the film outright concedes in her introduction that Perez's Det. Montoya will be defined completely by 80s cop movie boilerplate, and even that's overstating the character's case; Smollett-Bell's Canary genuinely has no material at all besides the plot, which she's barely integrated into, and the most perfunctory read-through of her comic book backstory possible.  (It's cause for a lot of sourness on my part that one of the lines just barfs out the character's superheroic secret; it's cause for even more sourness that the screenplay, or maybe meddling executives, felt that this needed to be blandly set up in dialogue—when it was already foreshadowed well, in visuals—but somehow nobody ever felt it also needed to be explained why Canary isn't sonic screaming everybody all the time and ending this movie in ten minutes.  I could offer a comic book fan's explanation as to why, but that's fucking horrendous screenwriting, no two ways about it.)  Oh, and maybe there's the bare penumbra of a third performance in here somewhere, with Winstead playing Huntress as the monotone dweeb version of O-Ren Ishii and/or the Bride, trying to get her lethal vigilante's catchphrases right.  This was all in bad need of workshopping before it could've been genuinely funny, but she's only in this movie for a grand total of about six minutes anyway.  Nine, if you count the childhood flashbacks, evidently remembered on her behalf by Harley.

Thematically, Birds of Prey tends to work by resort to brute force; it's not ever the Black Christmas With Superheroes one feared, but it shares something of the same spirit, and it shares the same issue, emphasizing women's solidarity at the direct expense of their individuality.  (There is no moral universe outside of "girl power!" togetherness where this film's penultimate scene makes any sense, and the profound disgust every good guy in the film ought to feel toward the protagonist gets muted way too hard.  Even so, to its credit, at least they didn't fuck up in the opposite direction by sanding Harley down too badly.  She's allowed to remain amusingly antisocial, all the way down to the most microscopic expressions of her awfulness, like littering.)

But, of course, the ultimate enigma of Birds of Prey is what it looked like before reshoots were ordered, courtesy John Wick director Chad Stahleski, especially given that it lurches between its action setpieces, and there is scarcely any action scene here that does not bear the fingerprints of John Wick director Chad Stahleski.  (Birds of Prey comes in at 109 minutes, a slip of a thing for a superhero movie—even if the structure keeps those minutes feeling longer than they are—and I would not be surprised if Yan is not wholly happy with this cut.)  I find it mildly curious that Birds of Prey replicates the basic plot of John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum (do we not hate that title? if not, God, why not?), but that's certainly a coincidence; it's interesting that it tends to replicate the bone-deep problems of that movie as well, but I assume that's a coincidence too.

Regardless, Birds of Prey, which beats the pants off Suicide Squad on pretty much every metric despite replicating several of its bone-deep problems, really beats it on action choreography, and there's some terrifically thrilling stunt-driven martial arts bits here that make it a wonderfully refreshing alternative to the perpetual skyborne laser-show of virtually every other superhero movie on record.  It's helped along by a small-time Mystery Men-ish vibe (this I credit to Yan, who definitely gets the vibe right, if not necessarily the flow), and some great costumes by Erin Benach, particularly for Harley, who spends the movie being several different flavors of splendidly hideous.  It winds up in what amounts to an homage to the '60s Batman television show, taking place in a set designed by K.K. Barrett as a cross between Tim Burton's and Joel Schumacher's Batman movies, with the incongruous grittiness of Matthew Libatique's cinematography, done up with a less-grounded version of John Wick's choreography, and that's—well, it's definitely something.  (The most blatant miss here, in fact, is simply not really exploiting the R-rating: Birds of Prey is, I suppose, admirably violent—when the only tool you have is a bat, every problem starts to look like a leg, and that is my actual favorite part of the movie—but it consistently fails to lean into the gore that's such a big damn part of its story, and, as far as I can tell, earns its R mostly by way of swearing.)

All told, a lot of it is a miss—it gets bogged down so hard in circuitous backsplaining that it's hard not to get annoyed with it, and you get the feeling that if it had just told its story straight-up with the same exact scenes and the same exact dialogue it would at least be less wearying—and the initial flush of excitement that Robbie's performance engenders in the first thirty minutes, when she's still grinning like an idiot at a knife two inches in front of her eyes and feeding rude men to hyenas, never really returns, not even when Harley's bashing knees.  But it has its moments, and it has a deeply charismatic antiheroine and a reasonably charismatic villain to hang itself on, even when nothing else is working at all.

Score: 6/10

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