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Friday, February 07, 2020

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

As I sit here writing this, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is sitting on a critical score of 83% over at Rotten Tomatoes.  The audience score is even higher at 87.  This completely boggles my mind.  Did my fellow critics and audiences watch the same movie I did?  But, as I look closer at the reviews that are labeled as being positive, I see a lack of enthusiasm.  One positive review even cites it as being "Aggressively OK".  Not exactly a ringing endorsement that.

I'm willing to admit that this movie was not for me.  In fact, I'm very proud of that fact.  This movie got under my skin pretty much from the word "go", and only burrowed itself further as it went on to the point that I just wanted the thing to end.  As a film, it tries to be a cross between a manic comedy, a sensory overload, and a female empowerment story that tries to tell us that women can be psychotic killers too.  Um...Yay?  Your enjoyment of this will pretty much hinge entirely on the lead performance of Margot Robbie, who dominates nearly every second of this movie.  She plays Harley Quinn, a villain and sometimes antihero who has been popular with fans in the D.C. Comics for almost 30 years.  I will be blunt here, and say that her performance had the effect of nails on a chalkboard to me.  She plays the character as kind of a cross between a manic pixie fangirl, and a bad impression of a Looney Tune character.  Toss in an unspeakable attempt at a New York accent, and you have a portrayal that I wanted to scrape right off the screen, and replace with another actress in about five minutes.

This is not Robbie's first attempt at playing the character, as she previously played her in 2016's Suicide Squad film.  Surprisingly, I don't remember her bothering me that much in that one, but maybe it's because that movie didn't constantly throw her in my face and try to force me to love her and all her psychotic quirkiness like this movie does.  A little Harley goes a long way, and at least to me, this movie felt like overkill.  This also is not really a follow up to that earlier movie.  It's all about how Harley got her heart broken by her former boyfriend and partner in crime, the Joker, or "Mr. J" as she affectionately calls him.  And no, we don't get to see the Joker in this movie, though he's talked about an awful lot.  On her own for the first time, Harley is trying to make a name for herself in the crime world.  This doesn't work out very well for her, as it seems every criminal in Gotham City now wants her dead, because she doesn't have the Joker to protect her anymore.  She's pissed off a lot of her fellow killers and crime bosses over the years, and it seems everyone has a grudge against her.

This is a potentially funny idea, but the film never takes advantage of it, and instead uses it for a lot of scenes where faceless goons are introduced to us, and then beaten up or killed by Harley.  There's a scene where Harley is walking down the street, and everywhere she turns, someone is trying to kill her.  Again, funny idea, but it doesn't work.  It's not for lack of energy.  Energy is certainly not this movie's problem.  If anything, this movie is so overproduced that it feels like the story is roaring by in a blur.  Not that there's much plot to latch onto.  It concerns one of the major Gotham City crime bosses named Roman Sionis (Ewen McGregor), who sometimes goes by the name of Black Mask.  As far as I can tell, he only calls himself this because he happens to wear a Black Mask over his face for no apparent reason during the film's climax.  Roman essentially wants to kill Harley like everybody else, but first, he needs her help in retrieving a valuable diamond that was stolen from him.

If you want to know how Birds of Prey frequently emphasizes style over any kind of substance, then the scene where McGregor gives her this mission is a prime example.  He tells Harley that he wants the diamond back, and suddenly and for no reason I can decipher, the movie abruptly cuts to a fantasy musical sequence where Harley is done up like Marilyn Monroe, and singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend".  This goes on for about two minutes, then it jaringly stops, and we're back at the scene we were just in.  Why, exactly?  Obviously because the filmmakers thought it would be funny to slip in a musical sequence.  Not a funny musical sequence exactly, just a musical number.  We're supposed to laugh because Harley is suddenly singing.  This is one of those movies where people frequently act quirky and silly, and we're supposed to laugh.  A real movie would actually give these characters funny things to say or do.

Turns out the theft of the diamond was performed by a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (likable newcomer Ella Jay Basco).  Harley tracks the kid down, and creates a kind of friendship with her.  At least that's what the movie tells us.  It often feels like most of the substantial screen time the two actresses shared in this movie was left on the cutting room floor.  So, Harley wants to protect the kid from Roman's goons.  To do this, she teams up with the titular Birds of Prey, a trio of female heroes who include Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a tough cop who talks in 80s cop show cliches (this is not a critical observation, by the way, the movie flat out tells us this), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a woman skilled in martial arts and has a singing voice that can actually shoot out sound waves that can knock bad guys over, and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vigilante who is bumping off some of Gotham City's worst criminals with her deadly crossbow.  If you've come to see these characters, you will be disappointed.  They appear only sporadically throughout the movie, and don't actually team up until the final 15 minutes.  They don't get to interact much, and we only get to see them as an actual superhero team for about five seconds in the film's final moments

Again, this movie is all about Harley Quinn, and just how kooky and crazy she is.  She keeps a hyena in her apartment for a pet, she has a gun that shoots beanbags and glitter bombs, and she likes to dress in flashy and loud clothes that would only be acceptable to wear at a comic fan convention.  The problem is, the movie constantly slams the character and her offbeat traits in our face.  I felt like the movie was constantly screaming at me to laugh.  "Isn't she weird?  Isn't she goofy?  Don't you just love her nonconformist ways?"  Now Robbie is an incredibly talented actress who I have greatly admired in many films.  But here, she's not really given much of a character to play.  She's just all energy and all zaniness with nothing to latch onto.  Like I said, the relationship that she's supposed to build with young Cassandra feels truncated and incomplete, and she barely gets to create any chemistry with the Birds of Prey, because they're unsuccessfully shoehorned into the climax.  This movie basically asks Robbie's Harley to carry the entire movie from start to finish, and given how quickly the performance and the character itself grated on my every last nerve, you can guess how this became an endurance test for me to sit through.

I will be honest, reader, there were moments where I wanted to bolt for the door.  Birds of Prey is not so much a movie as it is an excuse for fans of the Harley Quinn character to gather and get together.  If this is you, go and enjoy.  I won't stop you.  If you enjoyed this movie, more power to you.  I'm glad you had fun, because that's what most movies are for.  You and I don't see eye-to-eye, and that's okay.  But if I must be honest, this was one of the more torturous films I've come across in a while.  I would sit down and listen to an entire duet album put out by Gilbert Gottfried and Bobcat Goldthwait before I would sit through this again.

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