After Paramount agreed to distribute the 2008 comedic drama "Pretty Bird," they screened it at Sundance and then shelved it for two years, finally releasing it directly to video. To cut their losses, the studio included no bonus items on the DVD and provided no Blu-ray edition. Did the movie deserve so unceremonious a fate? Probably, but Paramount should have known as much going in.
The thing is, wouldn't Paramount have pretty much sensed this was the direction the movie was going to take from the very beginning? I mean, did they not know from the start it was a dark, bland, mean-spirited little sad-sack of a movie, with not much of a chance of its finding a mainstream audience? Surely, the cost of advertising and distributing the picture nationwide would have been far more than its production budget and more than any possible financial return. So, did the studio figure on a long-shot, a one-in-million hit if they released it to theaters? Or did they think they could make money off the film solely in the DVD market? Maybe they thought the movie would make a nice prestige item in the studio's catalogue, a film they could show off and say, See, we don't just sponsor blockbuster movies like "Iron Man" and "Transformers"; we champion the little guy, too. I dunno.
In any case, screenwriter and first-time director Paul Schneider based his script for "Pretty Bird" on some rather eccentric real-life stories about rather eccentric real-life people doing rather eccentric real-life stuff. However, just because some of the events in a movie may really have happened doesn't always make for a good movie.
The way the film's prologue explains it, Bell Aeronautics, with the backing of the U.S. Military, developed a "rocket belt" back in the 1950's. However, the Military withdrew their support when they deemed the device impractical. Nevertheless, the rocket belt has continued to motivate inventors and business people over the years. "Though inspired by real events, this story is a work of fiction."
It's that kind of mixed message that permeates the whole movie. Somebody thought the rocket belt had potential in the mid-twentieth century, then they didn't, then others took up the cause, then it failed again, and so on. And the story really happened but it didn't really happen. If the film feels as though it's trying every minute to find its course, then losing it, I would propose it's because the filmmakers weren't sure where they were going with the project, either.
The story concerns three men who attempt to build, promote, and market a rocket belt for the masses. Presumably, the design for said belt is in the public domain and the blueprints available from any public library. Writer-director Schneider would seem to be showing us the foibles of the American Dream, but his objective seems ill conceived. Are we as an audience supposed to root for the entrepreneurs and their high aspirations or laugh at their inept foolishness? The problem is that the three lead characters are so unappealing, they seem more pathetic than inspiring or funny. They are simply three oddballs. Why should we care what happens to them or their schemes?
At least the movie boasts a decent cast. Billy Crudup plays the main character, Curtis Prentiss, a fast-talking entrepreneur who comes up with the idea of building and selling the rocket belt. Unfortunately, he is also an insecure, self-delusional loser with a track record of hopeless longings and broken promises. Crudup plays him as a sort of low-rent Jim Carrey from "Dumb & Dumber" but without the humor. After a few minutes of Prestiss's empty-headed nonsense, he becomes simply annoying.
The ever-impressive Paul Giamatti plays Rick Honeycutt, a disgruntled, out-of-work aeronautics engineer, a rocket scientist whom Prestiss enlists to build the rocket belt. Unfortunately, not even Giamatti can do anything to save the ill-tempered, sour-faced Honeycutt character, who believes the world has always treated him unfairly.
The third character is the money man, Kenny Owenby (David Hornsby), the owner of a mattress company. Kenny is one of Prentiss's oldest and dearest friends, so, naturally, he's the sucker Prentiss approaches to help finance the deal. Kenny is a poor-soul type, a fellow so hopelessly enamoured of Prentiss, he'll do anything for him. And Prentiss's own misguided ambition so blinds him, he doesn't see any of the harm he's doing to the people around him.
Kristen Wiig also has a part in the movie, that of Owenby's assistant manager, but it's such a small role it hardly matters. The film basically wastes Ms. Wiig on a throwaway character who becomes less significant as the movie goes on (although she does have the film's best line: When Prestiss asks her what movie most changed her life, she answers "The Exorcist").
When the characters begin fighting among themselves, the movie turns sour and depressing. Then, when everything in the film seems lost, it only gets worse and the story moves off in a really bizarre direction. It's mystifying, really. "Pretty Bird" is not funny, it's not tense, it's not edifying, it's not stimulating, it's not moving. It just wanders hopelessly, trying to find a tone or a purpose or a point of view.
A crazy man, an angry man, and a wimpy man do not make for an ideal team or for an ideal movie. These people seem more desperate than human, and the movie makes it hard for us to sympathize with any of them. "Pretty Bird" is largely a pointless black comedy with ambitious but unfulfilled ideas, a lot like its main characters. Maybe that's the point.
Paramount video engineers used an anamorphic transfer to reproduce the film on disc in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1. The results look about as one might expect: good, deep color; appropriately strong black levels to set off the hues; and decent object delineation for a standard-definition product. A noticeable amount of natural film grain accompanies the movie, too, especially evident during outdoor shots, giving the image a slightly rough texture.
The first thing one notices about the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is the excellent stereo spread, very wide across the front channels. From time to time we also hear the surround channels kick in with the occasional voice or peal of distant thunder, yet these times are few and far between. This is, after all, a dialogue-driven story. As such, the all-important midrange provides a warm, smooth, realistic response, with the bass becoming apparent whenever necessary, which admittedly isn't often.
As I said earlier, there are no real extras on the disc. We do get at start-up and in the main menu a few trailers for other small Paramount pictures, plus fifteen scene selections, English as the only spoken language, and English subtitles.
It's hard to tell what writer-director Paul Schneider was up to in "Pretty Bird." He seems to want to invest an amusing story with grandiose ideas, yet the plot and characters are so aimless and futile, we ultimately don't care what he wanted. "Pretty Bird" is a dispiriting film about people with cockamamie schemes going awry. It's a mystery how the filmmakers meant for any of this to touch our lives.