Today Paramount Home Entertainment releases PRETTY BIRD on DVD, a quirky dramatization of the power and pitfalls of the American inventive spirit and desire to reach for greatness. Led by a powerful ensemble cast including Paul Giamatti, Billy Crudup and David Hornsby, a trio of dreamers disgruntled by their reality-grounded lives attempt devise a rocket pack and aim their ambitions at the wild blue yonder. Written and directed by Paul Schneider (also seen in Parks and Recreation) and based on a true story, this edgy comedy/drama hybrid dramatizes the noble and dark sides of seeking such a bold aspiration at any cost.
Its unexpected and enjoyably strange story aside, PRETTY BIRD at its heart is about the very human desire to rise above our own limits and achieve glory, be it personal, professional or altruistic. The drama here arises from the motivation behind such aspiration, and Crudup personifies that crux in the form of Curtis Prentiss, a smooth-talking, socially adept salesman of what should be. Of course, our introduction to him washing up on a shoreline and crawling away in a waterlogged white tuxedo implies that all may not go so smoothly in Prentiss’ life of what-is. He dreams of flight but has no wings, and so he must seek partners to realize his entrepreneurial ends, and turbulence ensues.
Prentiss secures seed money for his bizarre quest to invent a personal rocket belt from an old school chum Kenny, played with comic pathos and subtle heartbreak by Hornsby. A semi-successful mattress retailer, Kenny quickly falls under Curtis’ sales spiel and signs on to their newly formed corporation as CFO, mortgaging the income and very existence of his mattress store for the cause. Since neither the huckster nor his stake possess any scientific knowledge, Curtis entices laid-off rocket engineer Rick Honeycutt (Giamatti) into co-inventing his jet pack dream. The gruff, professionally abused Rick seizes the opportunity if only to make his own mark on a corporate world which has stolen all his creative credit in life. Yet he soon realizes that Curtis’ dream may not be a lofty goal but rather an escape from reality.
While Rick labors and Kenny empties his bank accounts, Curtis continues bamboozling all potential targets of opportunity to market the jet pack and his boost own ego’s stock. Such salesmanship includes seducing Kenny’s former clerk and single mother Mandy (Kristen Wiig), who starves for fulfillment and connection above her dreary daily routine. It’s in this seduction that Curtis’ true sales prowess becomes evident: he is less concerned about marketing a personal rocket belt for civilian flight, that is merely another concocted idea, an image commodity he wants to sell. Unfortunately Kenny and Rick buy into the dream of building the jet pack itself — so desperate are they to please Curtis or prove themselves, respectively — realizing only too late their own dreams have been sold out.
Curtis’ one and only product for sale is himself: he will say and do anything to get people to buy into his scheme not for scientific innovation but for self-invention. Crudup’s various motivational exercises — from warming up his voice to offering himself pep talks in the mirror — reveal that Curtis’ life is one long sales pitch to himself. His performance is the most engaging in this story which can play for outright laughs or dark comedic twists. In a way the less likable Curtis acts, the more compelling he is to watch. Crudup walks a very fine line of character acting to keep his role believable and entertaining without lapsing into caricature buffoonery.
Likewise Giamatti takes his firm grip on cantankerous behavior to a darker extreme while never surrendering Rick’s desperate, empathetic humanity. Rick is perpetually the genius, literally a rocket scientist, who has all the brains in the universe and none of the backbone to stand up for his achievements. When Prentiss backs him into one corner too many attempting to steal away one more dream from Rick, the brainiac flexes his muscle in a most unexpected manner. The final quarter-hour of the film is quite a curveball in the plot: some may find it surprising while others deem it unsupported by the bulk of the film. Either way, this quirky film heightens its own game to an unpredictable level which remains true to its core value, even as the protagonist must deal with the consequences of his own empty hype.
Less about flight in the aeronautic sense after all, PRETTY BIRD examines the human potential to soar above its own expectations and limitations, be that trajectory be for good or bad. Schneider’s alternatively witty and wacky script supports his look into the darker motivations behind pursuing what is perceived as the American dream — and indeed suggests that dream has devolved from national pride and glory to personal aggrandizement and profit. The cast embodies these dilemmas and questions affably and with humor, resulting in a daring and occasionally dangerous trip for viewers willing to embrace its unpredictable, indie style of storytelling. Schneider’s abrupt ending may not satisfy, but the trajectory getting there is a worthwhile adventure. Expect a challenging, intimate drama with the quirky throttle open, then buckle up.
FilmEdge rating: 3 out of 5 stars.