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Love Birds

Love Birds
Freestyle Digital Media
2011 / Color / 2:35 enhanced widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date June 11, 2012 / 14.99
Starring Rhys Darby, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Brown, Faye Smythe.
Alun Bollinger
Original Music David Donaldson, Plan 9
Written by Nick Ward
Produced by Alan Harris, Matthew Mecalfe
Directed by Paul Murphy

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In the last fifteen years or so New Zealand has become a hub of high profile filmmaking activity, notably in the area of special effects but also in the overall quality of films exported to the U.S. I'm also a confirmed fan of actress Sally Hawkins, of Mike Leigh's compassionate film Happy-Go-Lucky. Therefore I jumped at the offer to review 2011's Love Birds, a romantic comedy that teams the lovely Ms. Hawkins with New Zealand star Rhys Darby.

As it turns out, Love Birds is an extremely thin comedy that works from a script of awesome, calculated inanity. All the performers are good and Darby and Hawkins generate some decent moments along the way. But the show knows exactly what it wants to be -- a brightly lit slog through commercial mediocrity.

The premise is Lonely Boy Meets Girl through the happy workings of a Duck Ex Machina. Maintenance worker Doug (Rhys Darby) is a fan of the rock group Queen; that and a general lack of glitz motivate his sexy live-in girlfriend Susan (Faye Smythe) to walk out on him. While moping about in self-pity, Doug rescues an injured black duck that he eventually names Pierre. Zoo ornithologist Holly (Sally Hawkins) initially discourages Doug from nursing the duck, but warms up to his good-hearted appeals. A tentative romance blooms. Holly's precocious son proves a hurdle to their relationship, as does Susan when she makes an unwanted rebound play for Doug's attentions. Finally, the eccentric sage Dr. Buster (Bryan Brown) gives Doug advice on how to get Pierre the Duck flying again. Doug even goes aloft in a hot-air balloon to show Pierre that he belongs in the sky.

Love Birds seems assembled like a by-the-numbers picture puzzle. Doug has a lovable crew of multi-ethnic pals to do stupid things (a runaway lawn mower is a repeated gag) and frown in sympathy when he's depressed. The black duck Pierre makes noises that bystanders mistake for flatulence, leading to the old Groucho Marx joke. Doug tries to ditch Pierre with a weird lady who takes in stray animals, but she likes to dress them up so he worries that she's too crazy. We get painfully familiar scenes of Doug winning the approval of Holly's son by taking him to a ball game, etc. Holly just happens to see them on TV, laughing in the stands. Awww. As a mild comic sidebar (which goes nowhere) Holly's best friend hits it off with one of Doug's mates. In a mild 'adult' subplot, Doug's worthless friend Brent (Wesley Dowdell) loses his business and has a one-nighter with Susan. This goes nowhere except to disqualify the otherwise inoffensive Susan from further romantic claims on Doug. To wit, she's a looker but also a tramp> That life lesson is more suited to 1950s attitudes. Doug's innocent dinner with Susan almost wrecks his slowly growing relationship with Holly (oh no!) but he storms back into her life, duck in hand, to make amends.

As often happens in 'animal' movies, the therapeutic story of the little duck (which I know someone identifies as a bird other than a duck, exactly) is meant to provide a source of perverse sentimentality to compensate for the weak characters. We're supposed to be enchanted and charmed when Pierre once more throws off the bonds of Earth and lets his spirit soar, for all of us. This is the film's basic calculation: lovers + cute animal = surefire audience-pleaser. I personally resent the formula even when the animal in question is a cute dog, or a furry killer whale, or whatever. Ducks bops about amusingly and that's about it, beyond realistically c__pping on everything in sight. Love Birds must impose a personality on the duck through the anthropomorphic projections of the characters.

Honesty break: why the hell am I reviewing Love Birds if I have such a cynical attitude toward movies about displaced bestiality cute animals? This is of course my own fault. There's a picture of a duck on the disc packaging, plain as day. I should have intuited that Sally Hawkins would be providing supporting actress duty to three pounds of feathers.

Three years previously Meryl Streep's Mamma Mia! pretty much exhausted our secret affinity for the music of ABBA. Love Birds goes the extra mile, music licensing-wise, to saturate itself with tunes from Doug's favorite glam rock band, Queen. The songs end up being the duck that wags the tail, so to speak -- bouncing in at regular intervals but with less and less relevance to the plot. The most annoying instance occurs when Doug crashes an evening kiddie party to publicly plead his case to the angry Holly. He doesn't just walk in and beg, like any good schmo in the duck doghouse would do. No. From some unseen source, the pounding chords of Queen's Flash Gordon song get everyone's attention, and Doug appears walking over a footbridge, back-lit in the mist, in a full astronaut's space suit. When he gets to the (understandably) irate Holly, he tells her that he wants to take her to the moon. Awww. A bystander urges her to lighten up -- he's already dressed for it!

But wait! It needs to be said that star Rhys Darby is more than reasonably charming himself, perhaps not as adorable as NZ fans would say, but deserving of more attention. Just separate his good acting from the brain-dead situations given him by Love Birds. Sally Hawkins is peerless in stories about real people and real problems, but this is a light comedy. She curiously isn't given anything resembling a glamour treatment. It may have been Hawkins' personal choice, but I'm sorry to see her stand by as the supposed romantic lead while the dazzling Ms. Smythe gets all the killer close-ups.

This opinion on Love Birds surely reveals as much about my taste in movies, as it does expose any capital sin in a little show that just wants to entertain without offense. It goes without saying that what passes for family comedy today, even what children see (Ted), just depresses me. As much as I admire Sally Hawkins, I can't say that I recommend the movie.

Freestyle Digital Media's DVD of Love Birds is a very good-looking enhanced transfer. The movie makes Auckland look like a shiny, verdant paradise with plenty of wide-open spaces for recreation. Here in Los Angeles, the last open lots in the city are being fenced in, possibly to ward off future Occupy movements. I will assume Auckland has a slum or two, but NZ is too smart to let them into their movies. Naturally, Queen fans will have a fine time hearing their favorite radio tunes on the stereo track (no format designation given). I saw no subtitle feature, but the disc carries a Closed-Caption bug.

Included as extras are publicity-oriented interviews with the stars Darby, Hawkins and director Paul Murphy. "The Birds in Love Birds" is an EPK-style featurette, and a trailer is included as well. Love Birds reminds me of innocuous, mostly charm-impaired Israeli-made comedies I did trailers for at Cannon Films in the 1980s ... but with far higher production values.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Love Birds rates:
Movie: Fair +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: none, but the disc is Closed-Captioned
Supplements: interviews, featurette, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2012

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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