Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) appears to have been made from rotten cotton candy. And I think I mean that as a compliment. Directed by Cathy Yan, the movie’s best moments feature both a frothy, blue-and-pink sheen and a sense of decay. Birds of Prey is sweet, even when it’s sick.
This, of course, is the guiding aesthetic of one Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), whose spray-painted platinum locks and glittery makeup frame a corpse-white face. The last time we saw her, in the dreadful Suicide Squad, Harley was the girlfriend of Gotham’s infamous Joker (Jared Leto, mercifully absent here). In Birds of Prey, Harley is newly single—on the run from the law and criminal rivals alike, who are all seeking revenge now that the Joker no longer protects her.
Robbie was one of the few bearable things about Suicide Squad, so it’s no surprise that she’s transfixing here (she also serves as one of the movie’s producers). An anarchic force just for the fun of it, her Harley Quinn is impulsive, devious, destructive—and a devoted fan of greasy, egg-and-bacon sandwiches. (She eats as hard as she drinks.) Harley puts a lot of thought into her weapon and fashion choices, but otherwise seems to wing it when leaping into the fray. And if things don’t work out—if, say, she loses one of her heels jumping out of a speeding truck—she struts down the street as if that was the plan all along. More often than not, however, things work out. During one of the movie’s many fight scenes, Harley whips a metal bat at the ground, it bounces up to conk one of her adversaries, then ricochets back into her hands.
As long as Harley Quinn is on the screen, Birds of Prey has a propulsive, rollergirl energy. Unfortunately the screenplay, by Christina Hodson, unnecessarily complicates things in various ways. There’s a voiceover that cheekily skips around in the narrative’s timeline; a significant supporting cast, each of whom requires their own origin story; and a contrived subplot aimed at bringing them all together. The movie’s full title is a good gag, but its incongruity is also indicative of the film’s problems. (To be clear, the supporting players themselves aren’t the issue. Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead each bring their own distinct, character flavor; the screenplay just isn’t deft about incorporating all of them.)
It’s almost OK that the story is clunky and convoluted. After all, it is style—visual technique and craftsmanship—that mostly matters in Birds of Prey. Yan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (The Fountain, Black Swan) give the movie its rancid-sugar fizz, from the way Day-Glo graffiti embellishes freeze frames of certain characters to a dazed musical fantasy sequence in which Harley performs a wonky variation on Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Even the dismal, gray-and-black aesthetic of the DCEU is countered here by fluorescent flourishes, as when the action climax—a vehicle chase through Gotham’s grungy streets—involves the bright blur of Harley racing alongside cars and motorcycles in turquoise-and-pink roller skates.
Scenes like that get at the appeal of a character like Harley Quinn: she embodies all the fun and apparent freedom of anarchy without any of the costs. She takes her lumps, to be sure (including vomiting from too much booze and Cheez Whiz), but more often than not the bat comes bouncing back in just the right place. It’s interesting, then, that Birds of Prey pulls its punches when it comes to just how villainous Harley should be. Another unnecessary subplot involves a tug-of-war between Harley and a sadistic gangster (Ewan McGregor) over a foster kid (Ella Jay Basco) who has pickpocketed a valuable diamond. Although Harley wavers in her allegiance to the young girl, you can probably guess how things end up. Narrative anarchy is one thing, but even in Birds of Prey, moral anarchy is another.