Film Review: A Bird of the Air

Quirky screwball romance has many original points of interest, but is marred by fatal miscasting of a lead.

One very unlikely romantic pairing occurs when Lyman (Jackson Hurst) meets Fiona (Rachel Nichols). He’s a withdrawn orphan who works nights as a highway courtesy patrolman, cleaning up every kind of roadkill, while she is a kooky librarian looking for love. When a green parrot flies into his trailer, the two set out to uncover the bird’s backstory.

Working from a well-received novel by Joe Coomer, actress Margaret Whitton (The Secret of My Success, Major League) makes her directorial debut with this updated screwball comedy that has some winsome charm. It has lovely photography by Philippe Rousselot and Whitton has a good feel for character, filling her movie with strong New York stage actors (Judith Ivey, Linda Emond, Buck Henry, Phyllis Somerville, Louis Zorich, Kaiulani Lee and, in a real comeback, Anjanette Comer) playing endearingly varied eccentrics. The search for the bird’s roots, with all manner of intriguing clues like its own parrot-speak, is a rather ingenious gambit which keeps you watching. However, one major case of miscasting mars the film and seriously stymies its intention of sneaking into your heart.

That would be Nichols, whose gratingly perky acting style—like a lesser Debra Messing of “Will & Grace”—keeps you resolutely at arm’s length from complete involvement in the proceedings. Granted, Fiona, always accompanied by her doleful-faced basset hound, with her gabby, pushy, wacky ways (at one point impersonating a blind person so she can bring her dog into a library) is not an easy concept to pull off. But, in the 1930s and early 1940s, the likes of Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur or Margaret Sullavan could have made her weirdness enchanting, nay, mesmerizing. (I even would have liked to see Emond, so brilliant onstage in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, take a whack at it.) It’s a particular shame, because Nichols doesn’t provide the essential, convincing chemistry with Hurst, who is marvelously low-key and sexy in his role, although he’s so handsome it takes a leap of faith to accept him as a guy who doesn’t know how to act around women. (Men this attractive, no matter how shy, never have to worry: Someone will always gladly take up their social/romantic slack, however considerable.) The bird and the dog, by the way, are pretty magnificent.