Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey is, like the bodega breakfast sandwich at its emotional center, junk food. It’s a corn dog. A funnel cake. A fried Oreo. It shares both its strengths (sweetness, texture, simplicity) and its weaknesses (insubstantial, unimaginative, undercooked) with the kind of fairground fodder that leaves your fingers sticky and your eyes slightly glazed. Yes the script is forgettable, the final act uneven, the villains overblown — but Yan’s knack for shooting energetic action, a crackerjack cast bubbling over with chemistry, and a surprising soundtrack full of B-side jams disguise its shortcomings with the brute force approach of a deep fryer turning questionable hot dogs into crunchy golden treats. In other words it’s that rarest of things in this age of sagging, joyless Disney blockbusters: fun.
As Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie is a cross between chatty, unselfaware Scorsese protagonist and a cartoon character, her voiceover narration peppered with retractions and asides and underscored by a wide range of cartoonishly mobile facial expressions. At its worst it’s a flat and inconsistent device, but in the film’s first leg it makes for a delightful gimmick as Quinn narrates over herself, confusing timelines and giving the straightforward plot a dash of left-field wackiness. Relative newcomer Ella Jay Basco’s deadpan teen pickpocket Cassandra Cain is the perfect foil to Robbie’s manic, coked out lead.
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Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), disgraced detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and super-powered nightclub singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) round out the titular players with uniformly strong performances, and while Ewan McGregor’s turn as the preening gangster Black Mask is more scenery chewing and psycho killer cliches than anything else, it works as a way to focus the ensemble toward a single point. A few times, as when he spits out “Is that a snot bubble? Gross” or when his face crumples up like a fussy baby’s after an underling betrays him, McGregor takes it far enough to make something of the role. Mostly, though, he’s overshadowed by Robbie, Basco, and Winstead, whose combination of lethal brutality and sorely underdeveloped people skills is one of the film’s funniest gags.
The connections between these women gives Birds of Prey the all-important fatty, salty crunch which separates the world’s great junk food from the just-okay. It’s never complex, nor particularly insightful, but it’s heartfelt and Robbie does deeply charming work sketching a kind of hot mess millennial adulthood you can be sure will resonate. Her surprise at Cassandra’s admiration for her apartment is an unexpectedly moving moment, and the easy chemistry between the two as they sit eating cereal and watching Looney Tunes is the kind of thing that speaks to the childish love of explosions, mallets, and milk-out-your-nose laughter we could all stand to recall once in a while.