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Eccentric actor Paul Schneider makes his directorial debut with the dramedy "Pretty Bird," and the film reflects his unconventional acting inclinations. It's an erratic, minimally adorned, frequently unfunny picture that tries much too hard to achieve absolutely nothing. A game cast and an intriguingly kooky premise are let down by Schneider, who would rather wallow on stillborn mood and undercooked plotting than dive into the deep end of the human condition, investigating the excruciating desperation of failure.
Curtis (Billy Crudup) has come to town with a big idea. Roping his friend Kenny (David Hornsby) into a plan to manufacture and sell "rocket belts" (jet packs, like the one Bond used in "Thunderball"), Curtis turns on the salesman high beams, ready to make a fortune with a product that died a noble death 40 years ago. Helping the men is Rick (Paul Giamatti), a cantankerous, possibly homicidal engineer who suffers from extreme bouts of violent paranoia. Successfully constructing a working belt, Curtis's dreams go awry when he can't sell it, sending him down a depressive spiral that alienates both Rick and Kenny. However, when Curtis hides the belt from Rick out of fear of legal interference, the engineer goes berserk, hunting Curtis and the belt down with plans to destroy them both.
The actors are what really keep "Pretty Bird" (a horrendous title) awake for as long it can. Fitted for enticing roles that play slightly against type, both Crudup and Giamatti appear to be enjoying themselves as polar opposites of the optimism scale, embarking on a careful tango of heated verbal exchanges and troubling looks that Schneider coveys with convincing, darkly comic intensity. Though opening as a comedy (with Crudup playing a slight variation on Harold Hill), it doesn't take long before Rick's fury swallows the story, giving the two leads plenty to play with in the first act as the ownership of the rocket belt is contested.
The second half of the picture is where it all goes wrong. Either the victim of a cruel editorial mangling or perhaps a true reflection of Schneider's skill as a storyteller, "Pretty Bird" dissolves into a mush of hazy motivations and abrupt conflicts, speeding to a conclusion that doesn't offer much in the way of satisfaction. Schneider aims for an introspective mood, communicating Curtis's crippling failure as the belt goes nowhere in the marketplace, leaving him lost in depression and fearful of being branded a loser. It's fruitful, but not up against Rick's manic revenge plot, which tips the picture into an aggravating inconsistency that makes the second half of the film directionless. Leaving laughs, rounded characterizations, and perhaps coherency behind, "Pretty Bird" crash lands on the way to a conclusion.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), the image quality on "Pretty Bird" suffers from troubling contrast issues during interior shots. Black levels are wobbly and unsupportive, leaving several moments inky, hiding needed body language. Colors are generally better, able to convey the greenery of the locations, while permitting a few important hues to retain their power. Skintones are natural, downright frightening with Giamatti's sticky white epidermis.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix keeps the full-bodied musical score of the film alive and powerful, with nice directional movement on the music, supporting the picture as promised. Some of the more heroic moments bring dimension to the track, but it's a softer affair, with dialogue exchanges key, pushed up front for full clarity and nuance. It's a competent effort, not dynamic.
English subtitles are included.
"Pretty Bird" is a fairly strange viewing experience, starting off confident and pleasingly quirky before shooting itself in the foot through a developing absence of direction and screen movement. Still, Schneider has a certain eye for the idiosyncratic and appears comfortable with actors. I'm not saying I'd like to see a second film from the man, but this first one holds a faint flicker of promise.