' Cinema Romantico: Pretty Bird

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pretty Bird

The terrific character actor Paul Schneider's 2008 writing and directing debut, finally just released on DVD, is one part promising and one part frustating, and the problem is the frustrating part overwhelms that which is promising.

Billy Crudup - who in full disclosure of interest is my favorite actor - is Curtis Prentiss, a shifty, charming rogue with a harebrained scheme to construct a rocket belt, that infamous propulsion device the U.S. Government experiented with before deciding it had no value whatsoever. Of course, Prentiss has no money and while he keeps claiming he's a scientist he knows no science. Thus, he enlists the money of his friend Kenny (David Hornsby), a matress magnate, and an unemployed rocket scientist named Rick Honeycutt (Paul Giamatti) to build the all important belt. Prentiss meanwhile hits the road with his snazzy suits and boundless enthusiasm in an attempt to enlist investors for their teeny-tiny company, Fantastic Technologies.

What is particularly odd about Schneider's script is that the rocket belt merely functions as, to borrow the terminology of one Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin. It is the engine that drives the story, though what it is could hardly matter in the grand scheme. It could have been anything. Schneider appears far more interested in the dynamic between these two men, each of whom possesses principles for which they will fight tooth and nail.

In the realm of direction Schneider rarely moves the camera, choosing instead to take the greatest of care in framing his actors. Even the triumphant scene in which the rocket belt first lifts off is done in a static wide shot. Time will tell if this was a choice of artistry or necessity.

Both of the male leads are marvelous. Crudup, a never-ending dreamer with an incurable can-do attitude, is all over-the-top mannerisms and over-inspired laughs, though as the film progresses he will reveal other layers (though one detail in the screenplay unfortunately recalls Kevin Kline in "A Fish Called Wanda") as we realize his insecurity is in full bloom. Giamatti, meanwhile, procuring amazing mileage from his little moustache, is hardened, anti-social, suspicious of everyone and everything, his line readings often nothing more then a series of disgusted and/or frustrated grunts. He assembles this rocket belt and then immediately becomes convinced Prentiss is out to get him, to take the belt for himself, to reap all the glory.

"Pretty Bird" basically turns into a war of wills between two men who outwardly could not be more different but inwardly are quite similar. Except after charting this duel fairly well for an hour the movie begins to lose its way and never regains momentum. It shifts, awkwardly, into a little bit of a con game and into a little bit of Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray going after one another in "Rushmore". This is an easy way out and it is most ineffective here.

But all those issues are miniscule compared to the ending. Open endings are fine, I love open endings, but the ending to "Pretty Bird" isn't just open, it's a yawning chasm. It's not a requirement for the big picture blanks to be filled in and while our characters do not need obligatory resolutions there should at least be a satisfactory end point to their journies within the framework of the film.

I have confidence that next time out Schneider will learn from his mistakes and craft something even better.

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