Watching High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh’s new movie for Netflix, it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s somehow more than a movie. Whereas so many direct-to-streaming titles have the feeling of a lark, some kind of one-off experiment that’s either a worthy failure or charmingly ephemeral, Bird feels almost like a pilot for a future prestige TV series, a proof-of-concept for future films. Perhaps Soderbergh’s most impressive quality is his ability to create movies that feel like entire movements, art that seems to announce “this is what we’re doing now.”
Working from a script by Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, André Holland (also previously of Moonlight) plays sports agent Ray Burke, a kind-of thinking man’s Arli$$, or The Rock from Ballers but with fewer pool parties. The whole thing feels like Professor Soderbergh took all the sports agent shows that came before and returned them covered in red pen. Then he did a quick rewrite. “Here’s where I think you were going with this” — a Michelin starred restaurant’s riff on the chili dog.
Ray Burke represents the number one draft pick, Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg), who should be rolling in dough right now except that the NBA is in the midst of a lockout. The owners and the player’s association can’t agree on TV points and revenue sharing, so in the meantime everyone’s financial future is on hold. In an early scene, Burke tells Scott why he got bamboozled when he took a short term loan, only to have his own credit card subsequently declined by the fancy restaurant. Back at the office, Burke’s boss, played by Zachary Quinto, has to explain why they shut off Burke’s corporate card. Probably the hardest part of High Flying Bird to swallow is the idea that the big sports agency is tightening belts, but okay sure.
Especially in the early scenes, the dialogue is fast and almost scatty, like streetwear David Mamet. With a movie as talky as High Flying Bird it’s good to have a mesmerizing talker like André Holland as the lead. He’s the rare actor that can say one thing with his mouth and another with his eyes. Meanwhile, Zazie Beets plays Burke’s ambitious ex-assistant, Sam, with a humanistic ruthlessness, somehow both languid and calculating. She’s great.