I’ve got nothing in particular against blockbuster movies. I appreciate the way they dazzle and explode and create jobs for a small army of artistic technical engineers. But the movies that truly thrill me tend to be the small quiet ones, the ones that dig down and grapple with the slippery business of being human, or not.
Last night I watched “Pretty Bird,” a small independent film from 2008 about three men existing on the slim borderline between failure and mediocrity who catch fire when one of them, the dreamer/hustler Curtis, played brilliantly by Billy Crudup, inspires the other two to believe in his dream of building a rocket belt. Curtis, with his guileless smile and serene self-confidence, exemplifies the perfect huckster, one who believes so fiercely in his own impossible schemes that he projects an innocent aura which lulls even the hardened skeptic.
Paul Giamatti, as the skeptical rocket scientist, is terrific as always, portraying a bitter genius driven to the edge of madness by double dealing and corporate abuse. And as Kenny, the sweetly devoted friend who cheerfully sinks all his money into the project, David Hornby is achingly convincing.
The fictional movie is based on actual events, but it’s fueled by the deft character studies. There’s humor and intrigue and a certain amount of suspense, but what you come away with is a kind of modern version of Icarus. The dream of flight continues to lift men out of their ordinary lives, but coming back down remains a challenge.
“Pretty Bird” reminded me in some ways of another small independent film that blew me away back in the 90s. “Bottle Rocket,” the first film written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, is another story of three men, each a bit lost, each motivated by a different passion. The film, which really showcases the Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke, is funny and tender and understated, and, though the characters aspire to be successful thieves, it ends up making the same point as “Pretty Bird.”
You can fool yourself, and you may fool your friends for a while, but sooner or later, if you’re human, you have to come back to earth. All rockets fizzle eventually.