Credit actress-turned-helmer Margaret Whitton with ambition, at least, for choosing to direct the sort of challenging, offbeat story that frequently falls short of translating fully onscreen. The plotline of “A Bird of the Air,” taken from Joe Coomer’s novel “The Loop,” mixes ingredients as widely divergent as a psychologically impaired workman, a fanciful librarian, a talking parrot and a somber backdrop of violent highway deaths. Unable to establish a consistent tone, pic goes derivatively screwball one minute and stickily sentimental the next. Though occasionally enlivened by strong cameos, Whitton’s debut feature will turn box-office featherweight after its Sept. 23 opening.
Clinically introverted Lyman (Jackson Hurst) works for the highway department as “courtesy patroller,” a bleak job requiring him to tool around in his pickup truck at latenight hours, answering calls about jackknifed rigs, scooping up roadside clutter and sometimes recovering traffic fatalities. He lives alone in his trailer, enrolled at the local college in courses teaching solely utilitarian skills; his only (platonic) friend is Margie (Linda Emond), a waitress at an all-night diner with whom he shares the graveyard shift, and who somewhat inexplicably provides voiceover for some of his solo scenes.
Lyman’s possible love interest, Fiona (Rachel Nichols), is his complete opposite, an outgoing, sexually aggressive campus librarian. She compares notes on Lyman with her pal Amber (Genia Michaela), the two concluding he must be straight because no gay guy would be caught dead in a bright orange jumpsuit striped with reflector tape (the only outfit Hurst wears throughout the entire picture).
Both Hurst and Nichols seem too good-looking in precisely the wrong ways to fit their respective roles, but the film’s larger problem is helmer Whitton’s awkward application of a half-realized screwball-comedy style, the talkative Fiona cornering Lyman as though trying to emulate Katharine Hepburn glomming on to Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby.” Not only inappropriate, this mode is dropped instantly as soon as anything remotely tragic looms on the horizon, and the film switches over to unremitting schmaltz.
Whitton and screenwriter Roger Towne enjoy slightly more success with the film’s mystery parrot, making a slo-mo entrance through an open window in Lyman’s trailer and uttering a string of enigmatic sayings such as, “I’m an eagle,” “Mmm. Mmm. Good!” and an oft-repeated “Shut up!” A road trip to decipher the deeper meanings of the parrot’s squawks temporarily bonds Fiona with her socially challenged friend, giving her the key to his damaged soul and, better yet, giving viewers glimpses of the parrot’s previous owners — the likes of Judith Ivey, Gary Farmer, Anjanette Comer, Buck Henry and Phyllis Somerville in brief guest turns that are terrifically thesped but hardly worth the price of admission.