Culture

Review: ‘Birds of Prey’

Less Tarantino, more Taranteeny

Birds of Prey wants to be like Deadpool, and it is, except that it's also very bad. Deadpool rewrote the comic-book-movie script with its wild depiction of a fast-talking, foul-mouthed, nihilistic brute who is turned into an impregnable superhero with extremely questionable morals. Birds of Prey is foul-mouthed, bloody, and cartoonishly low-lifey à la Deadpool—its protagonist's go-to move is to break her opponent's leg—but to no particular end or purpose.

Playing nihilistic hyper-violence for laughs is, it should go without saying, a very tricky business. Deadpool and its sequel pulled it off because they're movies about a bad guy who isn't actually a bad guy—and because they are legitimately funny. Birds of Prey is about a psychopath who is really nothing more than a psychopath, except that she's spectacularly pretty. And while it has a comic tone and a comic patina, there isn’t a laugh in it.

The movie's writer, Christina Hodson, and its director, Cathy Yan, expect us to root for their protagonist, Harley Quinn, better known as the girlfriend of the Joker—not the schizophrenic abused-child Joker as played by soon-to-be-Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix, but the criminal-mastermind Joker Quinn calls "Puddin'." Only we're never given a reason to root for Harley save that she's played by the winsome Margot Robbie, who spends the entirety of the movie mugging like Jerry Lewis, showing off her Krav Maga training, and speaking in a horrific Noo Yawk accent that comes and goes like the women talking of Michelangelo. Luckily for Robbie, she is the most beautiful creature on the face of this earth, and so even the gaudy makeup and hair that define Harley Quinn can't keep the camera from loving her to death.

Harley narrates the movie the way Wade Wilson narrated Deadpool, only the narration in Deadpool was hilariously profane even as it advanced the plot. The words Hodson puts in Harley's mouth are peppy and cutesy and fall as flat as the stand-up routine Phoenix puts on in Joker. As for director Yan, Birds of Prey wants to dazzle us with its fractured rococo storytelling style, but she’s less Tarantino and more Taranteeny. In the movie's opening 15 minutes we learn that Harley and the Joker have broken up, and she’s having trouble getting over it. We see this and hear about it again and again and again. We got it the first time. Trust me.

The breakup means Harley no longer has the Joker's protektsia, and so she has to fend off all kinds of people who now feel free to kill her—leading to endlessly repetitive scenes of Robbie grabbing a guy's arm and using it as a pole-vaulting stick that allows her to do a somersault, land behind him, and (natch) break his leg. I'm not kidding when I say there are five such sequences in Birds of Prey, and it's not a long movie.

Harley's chief antagonist is Ewan McGregor, who plays a rich-boy gangster who runs a sleazy club in Gotham City. For complex reasons that are incredibly uninteresting, McGregor is in pursuit of a diamond that has a secret code inside it—yes, a diamond with a code. The code will unlock the offshore bank accounts of another gangster whose family McGregor had gunned down years earlier. The dead gangster's daughter has grown up and is using a crossbow to kill everybody who killed her family. A chanteuse at McGregor's club is feeding inside info to a tough Puerto Rican lesbian police detective who has never gotten her due inside the department because men.

This crew—Harley, the cop, the crossbow user, the chanteuse, and the teenager—become the superhero fighting squad of the title. I suppose if you know about all this from the DC comic-book universe, this origin story of the Birds of Prey might give you a thrill up your leg. As for me, by the second hour of this root canal pretending to be a movie, I was so longing for escape that I was reminded of a statement by the producer of Roseanne Barr's original sitcom after a single year of working with her: "I have chosen not to return to the show next season. Instead, my wife and I have decided to share a vacation in the relative peace and quiet of Beirut."