Birds of Prey: A scrappy, screechy, second-rate cartoon hotchpotch
Remember the ending of that classic Warner Bros cartoon Duck Amuck, in which Daffy Duck is tormented by the hand of an unseen animator who keeps cruelly erasing and redrawing his reality (for instance replacing a parachute with an anvil)? And remember the last few frames, when it pulls back to reveal that the hand belongs to Bugs Bunny, who then turns and grins, and barks, in his best Mel Blanc Brooklynese: “Ain’t I a stinker?”
Well, that’s essentially Margot Robbie’s central character, and her entire one-note performance, summed up for Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, also a Warner Bros production. It offers a hundred different versions of Robbie gurning to camera — usually after bashing someone’s head in with a baseball bat — and not a single moment to elevate the proceedings above a scrappy, screechy, second-rate cartoon hotchpotch.
A spin-off from the execrable, if commercially successful Suicide Squad, it stars Robbie as the comic-book super-villain Harley Quinn, who, as we first encounter her, is boozing in a Gotham nightclub, planning the destruction of a chemicals plant and, hilariously, vomiting into a hat. “I have all my best ideas when I’m drunk,” she announces in a broad Bugs Bunny twang that will remain at the same pitch, and the same intonation, for the entire film (there must be an app for that). It’s one of the boldest acting gambits by an Oscar-nominated performer since Robert De Niro adopted an oversized German accent to play Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. And it has much the same emotional resonance.
Harley Quinn, we learn, is nursing a broken heart after splitting from her boyfriend, the Joker (unseen, but named, a lot), and thus our heroine’s dramatic arc involves liberating herself from romantic pangs and, as the title suggests, eventually enjoying her “fantabulous emancipation”.
Written like that it sounds almost coherent. It’s not, although the film’s incessant Joker referencing does illustrate just how far, and how quickly, Birds of Prey has fled from any association with the Oscar-friendly Joaquin Phoenix drama, with its infuriating obsessions with, you know, character, narrative and theme. Instead, retreating into the cinematic equivalent of a Day-Glo crack house for simpletons, the spin-off unites Harley with a sorority of ass kickers, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s archery expert, the Huntress, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s super-screamer Black Canary (her vocal chords are a sonic weapon), and sets them against Gotham’s newest uber-mobster, Roman Sionis, played by Ewan McGregor. Ugh.
Admittedly McGregor has a nice scene where as Sionis he boasts about his collection of colonial art (it’s the closest the script gets to an idea or a flourish). But McGregor hasn’t been dangerous on screen since Velvet Goldmine. Here he’s just more good-looking blancmange with a cheeky grin and a creepy scene where he forces a nightclub patron to rip his terrified girlfriend’s clothes off with a knife.
Yes, the politics are off the charts. It is notable, for instance, that in a film ostensibly about female emancipation the central set-piece gag, repeated in several scenes, revolves around the suggestion that Sionis and his psychopathic blond bodyguard Victor (Chris Messina) are, wait for it, gay.
The climax arrives with an embarrassed sigh. It simply corrals the dramatis personae into a giant disused funfair and shouts: “Fight!” Cue more kicks and more polite falling. In the middle of the donnybrook Black Canary opens her mouth and unleashes the mother of all sonic screams. I’m guessing that it has metaphorical meaning too, and that it’s a scream on behalf of all of the women who have been denied their voices by Hollywood. It says that women will not be silenced any more. They will be heard. Because they have the right, just like all the men who have gone before them, to make vulgar, turgid crap. And they have.