New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: MOVIE REVIEW: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)


Yowzers. That’s one long subtitle. What an interesting choice of terms too. There’s emancipation signaling “the act of being freed.”  And then you have fantabulous as its adjective slinging its slang of “remarkably good.” That extra announcement goes from silly to proper in consecutive words. When it comes to the movie being sold, ahem, excuse me, presented, proper is nowhere to be found when the silly is everywhere.  There is certainly fun to be had, but to shoot to fantabulous is going to count as overselling and the liberation most desired will be to escape this fever dream.

To begin planting tongues firmly in cheeks, Birds of Prey is essentially (and let the stretching begin) a break-up movie.  The former Dr. Harleen Quinzel has been tossed to the curb by the off-screen Joker.  This split crushes her previously submissive need to serve and removes the aura of protection she had as the main squeeze of the Clown Prince of Crime.  Once word gets out she’s touchable, seemingly every living former victim, mark, fool, prey, stooge, and sucker that Harley Quinn has ever wronged comes out of the rotting Gotham City woodwork to enact a measure of revenge.

LESSON #1: HOW TO NOT DEAL WITH A BREAKUP— Oh my.  Drama! Drama! Drama! Harley clearly didn’t receive very clear closure from “Mr. J.”  Her responses are drunken benders, purging symbols, and blowing up places she shared with her batty beau.  Even if he returns cackles, talking to an adopted pet hyena isn’t enough. Let the parade of bad decisions begin.  

Being left to her own maniacal whims is where Harley’s emancipation comes into play.  The supporting squeeze is hurt and healing. She is trying to become an independent leading lady.  The movie runs into the same adversity with momentum and purpose. While Margot Robbie is an undoubtedly nuclear radiation star and a blast to behold squawking her crassness, there is not quite enough standalone lore for the Harley Quinn character without the Joker.  Much like having a Venom movie without Spider-Man, something feels missing in this post-breakup evolution.

The supplemental support squad being served in Birds of Prey is a brash bevy of belles all with their own bruised exteriors and damaged souls.  Crossing the hopscotch path of Harley is the high-kicking and high-noted singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), grizzled Gotham City detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the deadly crossbow wraith Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the teenage thief Cassandra Cain (newcomer Ella Jay Basco).  They are quite the downtrodden rabble who perk up and turn into different people, for better or worse, around Harley.

LESSON #2: HOW TO NOT DEAL WITH ADVERSITY IN LIFE— All four of these less-than-fair maidens have male-imposed obstacles of crap on their respective greasy plates. Cassandra flees an caustic foster father for the streets.  Helena is on a path of gangster retribution revenge for her slain family. Renee is at a professional dead-end below a distrusting C.O. that takes all of her credit. Lastly, Dinah is trapped working for an oppressive boss.  Their collective answers to all of these always include violence rather than savvy decisions. Buyer beware, 95% of the men in this movie are the enemy. Those 95% may deserve it, but good luck with full sympathy for all the bad imitative behavior.    

Everyone’s mutual opposition is Dinah’s boss Roman Sianis.  Played with odd hustle and warped gusto by Ewan McGregor, Roman is an emerging crime lord and seedy club owner looking to rise in the Gotham crime ranks and power vacuum of an absent Joker.  His right-hand henchman is a slow and knife-happy Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Those two killers and the crews are after old scores with Harley and a McGuffin diamond stolen by Cassandra connected to Helena’s past.  

If you’re a fan of the comics, Birds of Prey borrows liberties the way Nicolas Cage steals historical documents.  For many, Bumblebee writer Christina Hodson is bastardizing the process of fleshing out who are supposed to be Black Canary, Huntress, Batgirl, Black Mask, and the real serial killer of Victor Zsasz.  If you haven’t figured out from the lessons so far, failures occur more than victories for all involved, well, at least until the tidy and bombastic climax you know is coming wipes some of the blood away for smiles.  This is a movie making questionable creative choices. Buy, hey, whatever works and looks cool for a comic book movie, right? 

Occupying the mind and pace of Harley Quinn begets a little scatterbrained style. That is never this movie’s problem. mother! Cinematographer Matthew Libatique was the right hire to put us in a wheeled chair and spin us around the sets and locations from Her production designer K.K. Barrett.  The high-end carnival action and stunts coordinated by second unit director Jonathan Eusebio are visceral and entertainingly creative.  More riotous than the chipper classic rock of Guardians of the Galaxy, folks are going to jam to hate rock playlist arranged by music supervisor Gabe Hilfer.     

LESSON #3: HOW TO MAKE NOT MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES— Unfortunately, the discombobulation is too much and matches that iffy weirdness of the hit-and-miss treatment of the subject matter.  That goes back to Hodson and the DCEU powers that be. For 109 minutes, we get a whole bunch of “a pinch of this” and “dash of that.” Anything that sticks is something you don’t want like gum on the bottom of your show.  Anything attempting to be meaty feels like it was burnt, dropped on a dirty floor, and then sprinkled with sugar. The goal with the punches and hammer shots is to smash and grab your money. For that, it will work in spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds.




from REVIEW BLOG – Every Movie Has a Lesson

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