The sub-ninety minute indie film is practically becoming a genre (I’m assuming these short lengths have a lot to do with sales to commercial cable–ninety minutes fits perfectly into a two hour slot on TNT). Birds of America is both a part of this burgeoning genre and the post-Little Miss Sunshine indie dysfunctional family comedy genre. But it isn’t actually funny, which sets it apart. It starts out like it’s going to be funny and the abbreviated opening is one of the big problems.
Matthew Perry is the lead, even narrating the opening (which makes the film sound like a sequel to a sitcom he never made but could have–a teenager has to take care of his eccentric siblings following their parents’ deaths), but he’s absolutely ineffectual for the first fifteen minutes. In a film running, not including the end credits, eighty minutes, fifteen makes a big difference. He’s fine, but he’s not doing anything special. Worse, the supporting cast is more centrally featured in the opening and there isn’t a strong performance among them. Hilary Swank’s got a strange small role as an annoying neighbor, but Swank’s not funny enough with it (Parker Posey would have been much better). She’s nowhere near as bad as the guy playing her husband, Gary Wilmes. Wilmes seems like an infomercial presenter (for what, I can’t imagine), not someone who ought to be acting in a scene with Matthew Perry, even a disinterested Matthew Perry.
As Perry’s wife, Lauren Graham’s annoying. The characters are all poorly defined in the opening and, while Perry gets to come around into a fully drawn person, Graham’s big change is too abrupt. She does better in the end than she does in the beginning, but Elyse Friedman’s script is particularly unkind to her.
When Ben Foster and Ginnifer Goodwin show up as Perry’s siblings and Birds of America forms its trinity, it finally works. It’s not revolutionary–even though Foster and Goodwin have interesting story arcs (Goodwin in particular), Perry’s tenure-obsessed teacher story is lame–but it’s solid. The trio works great together. Foster’s amazing, Goodwin’s excellent and Perry’s subtle but assured transition to leading man makes the opening weakness hard to remember.
Birds of America takes a place in that missing American genre–the family drama. If it weren’t for the recognizable from television faces–not including Foster, who’s got to be the only character actor of his generation–Birds would be almost entirely unassuming. It presents its story straightforwardly and lets it play out for the viewer. Some things work, some things don’t. More work than not. The film’s best when it’s taking place over one night, which cuts the short running time a little slack. But the direction really doesn’t hurt.
Craig Lucas shoots Super 35, but his widescreen composition is one of the best I’ve seen for that medium (maybe even since Mann and Manhunter). Lucas is in love with the frame and since most of Birds takes place indoors–being that family drama–he composes some fantastic shots.
Birds of America isn’t any kind of singular film event, but it’s a solid picture in an era without many solid pictures.
Directed by Craig Lucas; written by Elyse Friedman; director of photography, Yaron Orbach; edited by Eric Kissack; music by Ahrin Mishan; production designer, John Nyomarkay; produced by Jana Edelbaum, Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray and Daniela Lundberg Taplin; released by First Look Studios.
Starring Matthew Perry (Morrie), Ginnifer Goodwin (Ida), Ben Foster (Jay), Lauren Graham (Betty Tanager), Gary Wilmes (Paul), Daniel Eric Gold (Gary), Zoë Kravitz (Gillian) and Hilary Swank (Laura).