Cast Shoulders Soderbergh's "High Flying Bird"

The “shot-on-an-iPhone” hook that worked so well for director Steven Soderbergh on horror pic “Unsane” falls a little flat the second time around.

On paper, Netflix sports drama “High Flying Bird” might have benefitted from the flexibility and intimacy afforded by a smartphone rig. In practice though, the dialogue-heavy screenplay by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”) cries out for more space; if not the cavernous reaches of a Broadway theater, at least a more traditional cinematic presentation – an increasingly tough ask from Netflix.

André Holland (also “Moonlight”) is sports agent Ray Burke, he and his newest client – No. 1 NBA draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) – struggling to navigate the waters of a league-wide lockout. Although embroiled in a nasty Twitter feud with a future teammate, Erick’s problems are mostly monetary. Over lunch at a chic New York restaurant, Ray berates Erick for taking out a high-interest loan. No basketball means no money for players, an especially thorny problem for a newbie with no nest egg.

Ray’s problems are more spiritual. His lifeblood is the same vampiric, historically white group of billionaires that practically own – or will own – his client. While potential deals between the team owners and the Players Association are kicked around everywhere from ritzy Manhattan offices to swanky saunas, the injustice of it all begins to eat at Ray.

If the narrative itself is sparse – Ray’s crisis of conscience eventually leads to a scrappy attempt to upend the very foundation of professional sports – the supporting cast is rich and lively. Bill Duke plays a grizzled Brooklyn hoops lifer, an angel on Ray’s shoulder, while Kyle MacLachlan plays a team owner, deftly representing the superficial appeal of life as a one-percenter; two phenomenal character actors that effortlessly carry the picture’s main conflict.

A trio of female characters comprises the rest of McCraney’s ethical spectrum, from pugnacious player mother-slash-agent (Jeryl Prescott) to Ray’s tenacious ex-assistant (Zazie Beetz) to the seemingly confident but secretly insecure head of the Players Association (Sonja John). Beetz is especially great, shaping a potentially one-dimensional supporting character into something far more gripping.

This is the headline in “High Flying Bird” – a vibrant cast elevating a project whose other moving parts never quite sync up.

It makes perfect sense that Soderbergh would want to tell this story. Ray’s hope to shake up the power structure of the NBA, no matter how naïve, neatly mirrors Soderbergh’s career. After all, Soderbergh isn’t just the director who secured a wide theatrical release for a movie shot on a phone. His 2006 film “Bubble” was the first ever to release simultaneously on the big and small screen.

But none of this makes the final edit of “High Flying Bird” particularly memorable. It is at its core a muted bit of anti-capitalist esoterica; thoughtful and wonderfully acted, sure, but entirely inhospitable to the kind of couch potato that drives Netflix’s bottom line. A fleshed out, more expansive big screen version almost certainly would’ve been the way to go here. As it stands, it’s a middling effort from one of our most dynamic directors, a niche drama fated to fade away amongst Netflix’s perpetually ballooning catalogue.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 8, 2018
Studio: Netflix
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Starring: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Jeryl Prescott, Kyle MacLachlan, Bill Duke