Paramount // 2008 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 7th, 2010
A Rocket-Propelled Misadventure
"First of all, let me say that you're doing a great job."
Curtis Prentiss (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) is a man with a dream. That dream is to build a rocket belt, which will allow human beings to simply strap a high-powered backpack on and fly above the ground. Curtis doesn't have much scientific knowledge, but he does have loads of ambition and imagination. He employs the financial assistance of his best friend Kenny (David Hornsby, Flags of Our Fathers) and the scientific knowledge of an out-of-work rocket scientist named Rick Honeycutt (Paul Giamatti, American Splendor). The level of progress ebbs and flows over the course of the following weeks as the three men are eventually led to unusual and unexpected places.
Paul Schneider is an interesting guy. I've seen him play goofballs in drama (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and the straight man in comedy (Parks and Recreation), and now he's written and directed a film that blends comedy and drama in a strangely hypnotic fashion. "This is just weird, isn't it?" one character says as the film wanders toward its conclusion. Yes, but it's a good kind of weird. I can't say that Pretty Bird is a genuinely great film, but I can say that it's an immensely compelling one with a plot that I found myself unable to predict.
At the center of the plot is the peculiar Curtis Prentiss, who initially seems to be the sort of man who looks as if he's wandered into the modern era from the 1950s. You get the sense that he sincerely wishes he could be a part of that particular era, given his fetish for gee-whiz science fiction and outdated slang terms. He's bright, cheerful and endlessly optimistic, but after a while one gets the sense that he's having to work very hard to maintain this unshakeable façade. You can see the bolts starting to come loose; as his problems increase his good nature seems increasingly strained. We begin to wonder how long this man can continue to go about his smiley-face routine before he simply combusts in front of our eyes.
This behavior certainly grates on the nerves of Rick Honeycutt, who is combusting in front of our eyes on a regular basis. He is as cynical and grumpy as Curtis is optimistic and cheerful; he glares at his collaborator with a potent blend of skepticism and derision. Still, he has been hired to build a rocket belt, and what rocket scientist wouldn't want to spend their time building a rocket belt? The project seems too good to be true, but Rick simply skips the part where he enjoys this and goes straight into waiting for the catch.
In the middle of these two shaky allies is poor Kenny, the sort of best friend that forgives and forgets all of good old Curtis' mistakes, sins and betrayals. That's the only sort of best friend a man like Curtis could keep for any significant duration of time. Kenny pours his money into this project willingly, never doubting that it's all going to work out fine in the end. Curtis promised it would, after all.
When I think of rocket belts (or jet packs, or whatever you want to call them), the first thing I think of is that scene in Thunderball where Sean Connery uses the device to entertaining effect. It seems that Curtis thought of the same scene, as he uses that clip as an example of how the public still perceives the device. There were actually rocket belts created by the U.S. government in the past, but as the technology was expensive and impractical the idea was dropped. Curtis fails to demonstrate just how the idea has become more practical or less expensive over the course of the last few decades, but no matter...he's certain The American People would love nothing more than to have their own personal rocket belt. That the film is loosely based on a true story is easily believable, as it's one of those tales that eventually becomes a bit stranger than fiction.
The tone shifts wildly throughout the proceedings, but the performances keep us glued to the screen. Crudup is masterful as the enigmatic Prentiss, creating a distinct character that we are only permitted to view from the outside. Contemplating what makes this odd duck tick is surely more interesting than being told, I think. Our sympathies tend to lie with the frustrated Giamatti character, as we empathize with his skepticism and understand his motivations. It's another superb Giamatti portrait of a lovably unlovable character, this time delivered with a big moustache. David Hornsby and Kristen Wiig (Saturday Night Live) do solid work in smaller roles, but the film rests on the shoulders of Crudup and Giamatti.
The transfer is solid enough, with sharp detail and deep blacks. Minor levels of grain are natural and pleasant. The audio is somewhat on the quiet side, but gets the job done well enough (though the Michael Nyman-ish score can be a bit distracting at times). Sadly, there are no extras of any sort included on the disc.
It seems the Schneider set out to tell a story that imitates the unsatisfying, unpredictable, unusual nature of real life, which is a strength more often than not. Even so, it's a bit frustrating to see certain subplots introduced just to be left on the floor. I understand that the film's intent is to avoid easy catharsis, but occasionally this feels like sloppy screenwriting. The romantic subplot between Wiig and Crudup particularly suffers, kicking up in a fascinating manner and then going absolutely nowhere.
Pretty Bird is an unusual little movie, but one well worth your time and attention. The film is being dumped onto DVD rather unceremoniously, but it deserves to gain an audience.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R