Even when he isn't making a heist movie, Steven Soderbergh is often making a heist movie. The Ocean's series and Logan Lucky are explicit, but Magic Mike is about a guy learning to work an angle (his hot bod) to make a score. You can say the same for The Girlfriend Experience. The Informant! is a caper spiraling out of control, and Erin Brockovich, while best remembered as a great star vehicle, does conclude with a big triumphant cash settlement. High Flying Bird, while being defiantly low on action, is a quiet celebration about the hustle and the long con. What's won at the end may actually be far more important than money.
There's also something of a heist in the movie itself. Shot independently on an iPhone (and featuring multiple references to Netflix as a bold, disruptive agent in the entertainment industry), the High Flying Bird trailer seems like a snappy, juicy movie about basketball. This is quite far from the case. It is a wordy, hyper-intellectual series of business negotiations. In restaurants, offices, cars and living rooms, Ray (André Holland) is a sports agent who is either pivoting madly or has a brilliant master scheme to save his career, and bring dignity to his clients, during an NBA lockout.
Soderbergh's use of an iPhone is simpatico with High Flying Bird's ultimate stick-it-to-the-Man message. About one hour into this 90-minute film, Ray's top star, Erick (Melvin Gregg), shows up at a local New York school's benefit clinic and ends up going one-on-one against his biggest rival. (He's a would-be teammate if the bosses and player's union could work out a deal, but for now the pair are in a Twitter diss-war, which maybe is being fueled by Ray; it's hard to know.) Someone just so happens to shoot this on their phone and uploads it online. It becomes a viral sensation and soon the mention of pop-up, underground games puts fear into the hearts of the stalling bosses.
There is an explicit racial component to all this. Most NBA superstars are African-American, and Ray's mentor, Spencer (Bill Duke), the school coach who hosts the annual benefit, is also a kind of historian/preacher. Should anyone mention the concept of slavery on "his court" (which is any room he's in) they must pause and offer up a quick prayer: "I love the Lord and all his black people." He reminds Ray that all the gobs of money being made off what is essentially black labor is "a game on top of the game." Ray's crafty assistant (Zazie Beetz) and the top negotiating player's rep (Sonja Sohn) are people of color as well, and there is a sentiment that part of what drives them is aiding the young players who can get caught in the NBA's orbit of gravity without proper financial or emotional protection. Soderbergh cuts to interview footage of actual basketball stars (Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell) offering interview testimony of adjusting to life on the court.
But these cuts to the interviews also work as a bandage for what is, by and large, a collection of not-very-dramatic scenes in a puzzling, distant movie. It takes guts to make a basketball movie with no basketball in it (unless you count three seconds of footage on YouTube in portrait mode.) High Flying Bird ends well with a nice "a-ha!" moment and the performances are compelling, but eventually it may dawn on you that if you wanted to hear people yap about contracts all day you could've just stayed at work. Shooting on an iPhone is another reminder that while the views from NYC skyscrapers can be incredible, the interiors can be soul-sucking, too. This is a notable curiosity of a film; it is not a slam dunk.
High Flying Bird is now streaming on Netflix.
Jordan Hoffman is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, VanityFair.com, amNewYork, Thrillist and Times of Israel.