Dir: Paul Schneider, US, 2008, 97mins.
The perennial story of Americans trying to get rich quick on a new invention meets the perennial story of Americans betraying each other over property in Pretty Bird. The look, and feel, of the film sing an ode to American kitsch.
Pretty Bird's success in the US box office will depend on the draw of its two stars - slick handsome Billy Crudup, as a confidence man determined to peddle a new product, and the versatile Paul Giamatti, as the pudgy inventor of a flying harness who becomes violently attached to his product. Director/writer Paul Schneider's fable about credulity and corruption could make for a curiously awkward morality play on the international festival circuit, but break-out success anywhere will be the miracle that never saves any of the characters in this story. Still, any film that gives Giamatti time on the screen will have life on the shelf.
The story begins as Curtiss Prentiss (Crudup) shows up in a town where his friend, Kenny (David Hornsby), who runs a mattress store, and Mandy, Kenny's bimbo secretary (Kristen Wiig), can't see that he unctuous con man has a scam in mind. It's just what Curtiss needs for his rocket belt business, and then he finds an inventor in Rick Honeycutt (exec-producer Giamatti), an unemployed engineer with an angry streak to match his imagination.
Their firm, Fantastic Tech, markets a scheme worthy of The Producers, yet it does produce a rocket belt that flies, but only for thirty noisy seconds. Curtis still finds investors to fund it, but when the invention can't pay them back and Rick, the inventor, faces the prospect that his beloved product will be seized, their partnership goes wildly and violently sour.
Pretty Bird tells its simple story with a hammy swagger, with all the actors going more for caricature than for realism. Models for performance style seem to be The Simpsons and other animated satires of the American family. Director Schneider (an actor who also has story credit on All the Real Girls) has failed to live up to the humour of those sources.
Cinematographer Igor Martinovic has given the comedy a lurid oozy look of a melting American Dream as the actors mug for effect, and the production design by Alex DiGerlando aims at the same goal. The atmosphere suggests John Waters, minus the writing, directing and acting. For the real thing, try Kiss Me Stupid by Billy Wilder (1964), a wry send-up of the credulity of small-town America.
Scheider's mean-spirited script has the same hammy quality, and it gives you the feeling that the director likes his actors more than he likes his own characters. The film feels like an improv in which actors have been instructed to make their credulous characters look as stupid as the lines that they speak. Crudup plays Curtiss as a walking cliche with a sleazy grin and cheap suit. As Mandy, Kristen Wiig brings no originality to a role that needs it.
Less earnest than Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker (1988), and a lot raunchier than Flubber, the Walt Disney 1997 remake of its 1961 classic with Fred McMurray about an absent-minded professor who creates a substance that defies gravity, Pretty Bird does have a wild inventor in Rick, played by Giamatti.
With a shaved head and a moustache from the 1970's, Giamatti alters his looks magnificently once again and blends innocence, ambition and revenge into that quintessential American character, the technological optimist. Elizabeth Marvel is well-cast as the wife of such a kook. They're hilarious, and the only reason to watch Pretty Bird.
All Mod Cons
Two Lane Pictures
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Director of photography