Synopsis: DC’s Harley Quinn runs wild in Gotham City.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the movie should’ve been titled Harley Quinn and never Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Talk about burying the lead. Birds of Prey—to which the average moviegoer responds “Who?” Use of Fantabulous in the title–should not happen unless it’s a Barbie movie. And Barbie movies shouldn’t happen anyway.
So, the movie opens and distributor Warner Brothers realizes their mistake. They don’t officially change the film title, but they did direct theaters to use Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey for listings. Good news for people who get too tired to read long titles.
The best part of the movie is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. She combines relatable woman-in-the-city grittiness with comic book craziness. And HQ is pretty crazy. She had been on a good trajectory, working as a psychiatrist until she got involved in an abusive relationship with the Joker. (Fortunately, we don’t have to see Jared Leto in this movie.) Her monstrous BF tosses her out like trash. Harley is broken up over the breakup. What follows is sort of a Harley Quinn’s Breakup Recovery Guide…
I. Get Drunk Harley heads to a local club and, feeling sorry for herself, gets drunk and behaves badly. Said club’s proprietor is Roman Sionis/ Black Mask, a bigtime Gotham City gangster who wants to get bigger. He’s played in a creepy fashion by Ewan McGregor, who though overacting outlandishly, fails to make an impression. He’s happily manic one moment and the next he’s terrorizing anyone unlucky enough to be in his sights. There’s a particularly icky scene, wherein one night at his club, he flies into a rage and forces a terrified woman to get up on a table and be disrobed by a male companion. The director, Cathy Yan, said she kept the scene because it showed the club’s singer-Roman’s chauffeur, Dinah/Black Canary, just how vile he is. Yeah, we all get it, without the scene that just plays as lurid.
II. Break Something Harley reflects that she was able to get away with sh** when she had the Joker’s protection. New times…so what? Time to continue her anti-social behavior. Maybe smash a framed pic of her ex like a normal person? No! She blows up a chemical plant. Phew! Good to get that out of her system.
III. Adopt a Companion Animal Good Move! It’s a positive step, especially after being in a dysfunctional relationship, to establish a relationship with someone who will appreciate you and behave normally. A kitty? Nah, too much litter box cleaning. How about a hyena? Yup! Harley brings home a big, cuddly hyena. They get along great. Although I thought it was unrealistic how she never has to get up early to take him out to pee.
IV. Start a New Career Harley doesn’t want to go back to working as a psychiatrist, which is understandable because that’s how she met the Joker. She writes “Mercenary” on a business card and voila! a new start. Gotham City must be pretty lax about regulations because she never studies for a licensing test or anything. Her first client is psycho gangster Roman/Ewan Mc. He wants her to find the person who stole a diamond that is encrypted with numbers to other gangster bank accounts. Basically.
V. Help Somebody Out This is a good move to ‘get out of your head.’ After a relationship ends, one generally has extra time; which could be spent volunteering. How about fostering a child? Well…Harley sort of does this. There’s a girl –about twelve years old– Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who’s faring poorly in foster care and she may know something about the diamond that Harley has been hired to find. She’s pretty nice to the kid and even takes her out grocery shopping, letting her get whatever junk food she wants. But Harley warns the kid if she tries anything shifty, she will mess her up.
VI. Exercise Yes, exercise is good for physical and mental health. Harley goes well beyond boot camp workouts and spends a good deal of her time kicking the living sh** out of anyone who gets in the way of her safety or of her doing her job. Lots and lots of fights. And she knows how to use a baseball bat…well, maybe not for playing baseball, but for skull smashing, for sure.
VII. Make New Friends Definitely put the kibosh on frenemies. Early in the movie, Harley is shown making her way back to her table of girlfriends with a tray of margaritas when she hears them sniggering about her breakup. Ingrates! She had margaritas for y’all and that’s how you thank her by trash talking her? Feck off, wenches. Fortunately Harley has some new friend possibilities. For example, she meets Renee Montoya who is honest and upright. It’s a bit complicated though, since she’s a cop who is investigating Harley for the chem plant explosion. And Dinah/Black Canary helped out Harley when she saw that some bad guys were taking advantage of her inebriation and trying to abduct her. Black Canary kicked the sh** out of them. That’s somebody who you want around. Finally, there’s a mysterious archer who is taking out bad guys around Gotham. She only has her mirror’s reflection for company as she tries out aliases– she settles on Huntress. So, yeah, she could use a friend too. (Btw, Helena/Huntress is ably played by Scott Pilgrim’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead.) Movie Loon will give you a heads up: Collectively, Black Canary, Renee Montoya and the Huntress form Birds of Prey.
So…except for numbers I & II, I feel like Harley Quinn has a pretty good guide to breakup recovery. As far as Harley Quinn the movie, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I did like that the filmmakers include a lot of women: director (Cathy Yan), screenwriter (Christina Hodson), producers (including Margot Robbie, Christina Hodson & Sue Kroll) and costume designer Erin Benach who gives the women clothes that don’t look like they came from a strip club’s closet.
Maybe Movie Loon has violence fatigue…I feel like Harley Quinn could’ve been a better movie with a PG-13 rating and more comedic lines. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of women’s characters demonstrating “progress” in cinema by shooting and buttkicking away men’s monopoly on violence. I’m all for demonstrating men and women’s physical prowess without celebrating violence. And IRL women’s fights have a lot to do with changing attitudes and policies regarding equality. Maybe Harley Quinn’s next movie can show her taking on gender discrimination in Gotham City’s police department. Renee Montoya can tell her a thing or two about that.
P.S. Actress and screenwriter Brit Marling has a fantastic think piece on violence and representation of women in cinema, “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead.”