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‘High Flying Bird’ misses an easy layup

| Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

Steven Soderbergh’s most successful movies find a way to balance their potentially heady themes with his gift for visually engaging, engrossing storytelling. Take, for example, his two best films. “Ocean’s Eleven” is a look at our nation’s celebrity obsession wrapped up in Rat Pack glitz, while the beefcake fantasia of “Magic Mike” belies a meticulous examination of post-2008 economic struggles. The prolific director fails when he cannot find the middle ground between entertainment and commentary, with vapid fare like 2002’s “Solaris” remake on one side of the spectrum and 2008’s ponderous “Che” on the other. Soderbergh’s latest film, the NBA lockout drama “High Flying Bird,” falls victim to confusion, as it mistakes subtext for text.

Written by “Moonlight” scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney, “High Flying Bird” stars Andre Holland as agent Ray Burke, whose livelihood is put at stake by an ongoing NBA lockout. With the help of his assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz, charming as always), Ray must balance the whims of National Basketball Players Association officials, team owners and even his own client, the newly-signed top pick Erick Scott (“American Vandal” Season 2 standout Melvin Gregg), as he attempts to flip the entire structure of pro basketball on its head. The film’s impressive cast is rounded out with a murderers’ row of acting talent: Kyle MacLachlan, Zachary Quinto and “The Wire” alum Sonja Sohn all get room to shine.

This is Holland’s show, though, and his performance is easily the best thing about the movie, all jittery confidence and sharp-tongued finessing of McCraney’s expert dialogue. Beyond the leading man, the 75-year-old Bill Duke leaves a lasting impression as Spencer, a hard-nosed coach who splits his time between providing Ray with basketball history lessons and hilariously demanding a recitation out of anyone who makes the mistake of comparing professional basketball players’ lives to slavery: “I love the Lord and all of his black people.”

For a movie that is pretty openly about the NBA, “High Flying Bird” is shockingly light on actual basketball scenes or references — we only see a couple of possessions of a one-on-one game between Scott and a rival rookie. Even the league’s name itself is barely mentioned on screen. Instead, Soderbergh and McCraney’s focus is on what Ray deems “the game on top of the game” — the control exerted over mostly-black players by mostly-white team owners and league officials, an especially potent issue for a film that premiered on Netflix mere days before Colin Kaepernick’s collusion settlement with the NFL.

For anyone (like this writer) who loves basketball, this movie falls just short of films such as “Hoop Dreams,” “Hoosiers” or “He Got Game,” which form the upper echelon of hoops movies. Like those films, “High Flying Bird” has a deep understanding of the game and how it can define the lives of those who play it. Where it falters, however, is by only focusing on the negative aspect of the game’s allure and promise. On its own, McCraney’s script would work as straight-ahead interrogation of those concerns, especially when one factors in the real-life interviews with NBA players Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson and Donovan Mitchell. When paired with Soderbergh’s frenetic cinematography and editing, however, as with 2018’s thriller “Unsane,” which the director filmed entirely on an iPhone, “High Flying Bird” is caught in a no man’s land between drama and documentary and suffers for it.

Title: “High Flying Bird”

Starring: Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Genre: Drama

If You Like: “Jerry Maguire,” “Logan Lucky,” “He Got Game”

Shamrocks: 3 out of 5

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