Thanks to my brother having his first child I have found myself in an interesting position of working 14 hour days managing his pub while he gets used to the whole fatherhood thing. While personally I think it might take longer than 10 days, that is what I have agreed to and as I write this I am sat at the bar enjoying a short break from day five because I’m getting a bit antsy that I haven’t written anything in a long time. It was over a week ago that I watched High Flying Bird and before starting I looked through my notes to reaquaint myself with Soderbergh’s latest offering. The one word I found, circled and underlined might give you an idea of how I felt. It was smug.
High Flying Bird is the story of Ray Burke (André Holland), a sports agent facing the possibility of having no clients due to a lockout that is forcing people to look for greener pastures. While he faces his own bosses who are anxious for results he must also contend with the executives that are using the lockout to line their own pockets at the expense of the players they proclaim to love. While Ray must fight for his clients he must also face the unfair nature of the NBA and the business a game he loves has become.
From that description you might expect that Soderbergh would inject some kind of love of the game he seems to flaunt but the only people here who have an appreciation for the simplicity of playing a game and having fun doing it is Ray himself. Everyone else has an angle, a reason for acting like soulless manipulators while bragging about caring about a system they are all profiting from, in one way or another. The hypocrisy on display here is staggering despite Soderbergh and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney designing the film as an ode to simpler times. Both seem to have vastly different ideas on how to tell this story, or more importantly, what the story should be.
While some might think it is a three act play, something McCraney as a playwright should be adept at, others might see it as a heist movie. Technically you would both be right but the operatic feel of a play doesn’t mesh with the fast paced machinations Ray is trying to carry out and while showing audiences plot progression is important on the stage, it is just as important to not ruin a surprise in film. The end of the second act comes with a twist that loses all power thanks to a totally unnecessary series of flashbacks that only serve the purpose of explaining a very simple concept, Ray is a clever man. While its easy to see what the purpose was, it proves remarkably insulting as it implies the audience watching has very little intelligence and must be spoon fed things while Soderbergh yells ‘here comes the aeroplane.’
I might sound a little bitter about High Flying Bird but I came to admire it for its technical wizardry and the way it was shot but I couldn’t for the life of me hold on to anything else. The fact it was all filmed on an iPhone gives you pause for a moment as you think about how much effort that takes but after you have come to terms with it, you move on in search of a deeper meaning beyond the obvious ‘because I can’. Far too enamoured by what is seen, this is bland film-making that has the lifespan of a daddy-long-legs. It gets old fast.
The plot, while smart, lacks any real meat. Great performers like Sonja Sohn and Bill Duke are resigned to playing monologue spouting ideologues that would never exist in the real world. In fact, that might be the main issue here. Besides Ray and all his quick talking and deal making, Bird lacks any real characters, the kind that you can sink your teeth into because you can see something in them that binds them to reality. Instead you get people full of vitriol, superiority and not much else. Add to that a cameo by the usually impressive Kyle MacLachlan that proves to be little more than a walking stereotype and a pattern starts to emerge.
In the end, High Flying Bird suffers from the same affliction that hobbled Side Effects in that it was so sure of itself it forgot to take sometime to think about the people watching it, not the people in it. In fact the audience watching this vapid visual experiment probably have a more acute sense of what this story should be about because unlike Soderbergh they actually have a respect for the game that he uses as little more than a punchline for characters who you will probably come to see for all of their smug grandstanding, really don’t matter.