Smart, sharp and lovely to watch, "Pretty Bird," premiering in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is all one can hope for from an actor making the transition to feature filmmaking. Paul Schneider may not be a household name due to his starring role in another Sundance film, David Gordon Green's 2003 romance "All the Real Girls," or supporting roles in studio films "Elizabethtown," "The Family Stone" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." But by stepping behind the camera, writing and directing the lively huckster tale "Pretty Bird," Schneider enters a new chapter in his film career, one of promise, excitement and perhaps, the chance to make a welcome contribution to American independent film.
Curtis Prentiss (Billy Crudup) is a wannabe entrepreneur who enlists an old friend (David Hornsby) and an out-of-work aerospace engineer (Paul Giamatti) into a get-rich scheme of building a rocket belt. They raise the money and get to work. Once success lies within reach, their collaboration turns sour. Prentiss is the perfect role for Billy Crudup, a chance to put his smart aleck personality, ability to charm the ladies and frat boy good lucks to good use. Crudup never misses a beat as Prentiss, bringing gusto to his Elmer Gantry-like con man and to Schneider's debut feature.
The always, colorful Paul Giamatti is gruff in all the right ways as Rick Honeycutt, a longtime worker who feels he's been wronged by corporate America. Giamatti is the clown of "Pretty Bird" - the character who chews up the scenery just when the plot needs a boost. Giamatti is well suited for the task and does all Schneider needs to maintain the film's high energy. Newcomer David Hornsby shows innocence and believable naivete as the friend who gives Prentiss his start-up money.
"Pretty Bird" has its flaws, expected for a debut film so irreverent. The narrative hiccups after the business venture turns bad but the film's abundant perkiness and strong lead performances help get the story back on track.
Schneider's love for moviemaking is clear from "Pretty Bird's" colorful opening credits until its satisfying finish. Working with cinematographer Igor Martinovic, Schneider shows the skills for bringing his vision to life with artful exuberance. Better yet, Schneider's talent as a filmmaker reaches beyond camerawork to where it matters most, the storytelling.
"Pretty Bird" is a Horatio Alger story with a welcome cynical streak; it's David Mamet's "The Water Engine" with welcome playfulness. It's familiar, yet fresh at the same time. It is a rare club, those talented actors who are just as skilled behind the camera. George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro come to mind. "Pretty Bird" is an impressive first step for Schneider, granted, one with expected flaws. But it's good enough to make Schneider part of this elite group and to start referring to him as a filmmaker who also happens to act.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.