“The rocket belt was first developed by Bell Aeronautics in the 1950’s with financial backing from the U.S. military. The Bell Rocket Belt flew successfully for the first time in 1961. Upon seeing the test, the U.S. military found the device so impractical that they promptly withdrew financing and dropped all support for further development.”
Unless you’re a regular at the film festival circuit, chances are you haven’t even heard of the movie Pretty Bird. Even after picking up the distribution rights to this quirky comedy, Paramount left it sitting somewhere in a cold canister for about two years. Finally the movie arrives in a bare-bones direct-to-DVD format. Is it possible that the studio found the film so impractical that they didn’t see any upside to further financial support that releasing the film at the box office would entail? After watching the movie for the first, and likely last time, I suspect there is more truth to that theory than not.
Curtis (Crudup) has had a dream ever since his childhood in the 1960’s when he saw Sean Connery as James Bond escape some bad guys in a rocket belt. You’ve seen them in plenty of science fiction films. It was even standard equipment on Lost In Space’s Jupiter Two. He comes across an early blueprint for a belt and decides to form a company that will build one. He’s quite arrogant and full of himself, and he acts like the most stereotypical used car salesman you’ve ever seen. He approaches his old childhood buddy Kenny (Hornsby) with the idea. Kenny owns a successful mattress store and has a little bit of money, apparently to waste. Once they form Fantastic Tech, they need an engineer. Curtis goes a bit overboard in his recruitment of Rick (Giamatti), who is an unemployed rocket scientist. Even though his instincts tell him that Curtis is a loon, he goes along and builds a working rocket belt. It is their success that leads to paranoia and some outrageous behavior by Curtis and Rick that send this film far afield.
“Difficult to build, dangerous and complicated to fly, only a handful have been created since the Bell Rocket Belt. Nevertheless, the rocket belt has continued to inspire the ambitions and sometimes reckless dreams of would-be inventors and entrepreneurs.”
It appears that filmmaking and building rocket belts have some things in common. Nowhere is that more evident than with Pretty Bird. Art films are often a very difficult thing to pull off, particularly with an artistic and quirky character. Still, it has been the dream of countless would-be filmmakers whose ambitions often aim higher than their resources. And sometimes the resources are there, but it just doesn’t click.
The resources are here for Pretty Bird. That resource is the cast. The three main leads are all convincing characters with plenty of nuance and emotion. The idea and setup are actually pretty clever. But like the real attempts at building a rocket belt, something went terribly wrong in the execution. Crudup and Giamatti are both actually pretty good. The problem is nothing comes together coherently. The film plays like an outline that contains some cool stuff that no one could quite figure out how to put together. In the end, I’m afraid you’ll find this promising film fails at almost any level of entertainment. Pretty Bird, as it turns out, is highly impractical and difficult to maneuver.
Pretty Bird is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 Colors for the film are often quite natural. There are even quite a few exterior shots that offer lush greens and a pastoral splendor that actually makes New Jersey look like Scotland. Maybe it was the music. The real problems here begin to manifest themselves in low light conditions where there appears to be no stable contrast and black levels revert to a murky softness with little or no detail.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 serves dialog and some rather nice Irish music.
Paul Schneider might be an average actor, but the blame for this movie’s failure falls heavily on his shoulders as a first-time director here. Perhaps in time he’ll develop better instincts, but they just aren’t there yet. He has little sense for pacing or when his story has crossed over into such odd territory that a general audience just can’t relate or care about. Schneider insists on trying our patience too often to meet some quirky mood that must have been funny as hell somewhere inside his own head. I have no doubt that he still laughs his kiester off every time he watches this film, which I suspect is quite often. Unfortunately, Paul, the rest of us don’t feel like we’re in on the joke. It’s not the absurdity of it all that really put me off. I can handle absurd. It’s the arrogance. “I’ve dealt with guys like this before, never again.”