directed by John Roberts
(Red Feather Photoplays, 1998)

How movies like Paulie get made is a mystery.

They lack the usual come-ons: big box-office cast, rousing action sequences, special effects designed to blow away Armageddon or bedroom scenes that would make Bill Clinton blush.

Instead you get a complicated story -- a kind of parrot picaresque of nonepic proportions -- told in an even more complicated fashion, the tale of a bird who has much to say but who's learned to keep his mouth shut, even when it means banishment and exile.

In fact, it's unlikely his story ever would have been told if Paulie (voice of Jay Mohr) hadn't accidentally hooked up with another exile, Misha (Tony Shalhoub), a former Russian professor of literature now working as a janitor at a top research institute. Misha quickly befriends the bird, who's been sequestered in the cellar for refusing to cooperate with the top research institute's top language researcher (Bruce Davison). Misha gets the bird to speak, then learns how hard it is to shut him up.

It seems Paulie was a present to a young girl with a speech impediment. Paulie helps Marie (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) master her speech lessons, but pays the price for being a little too accomplished for his breed. In Paulie's words, "Marie couldn't talk, the dad couldn't listen, the mom couldn't cope, so they got rid of me."

Paulie then survives a series of escapades with a magician, a pawn shop owner, an aging artist, a Latino musician/bar owner and a small-time grifter. But all the time, he's seeking his one true love, Marie.

That makes Paulie a sort of Citizen Kane with feathers, but a fun one if only because of the wackiness of the adventures and the spirit injected into them by some veteran performers: It's not easy to forget Paulie and the artist (Gena Rowlands) singing a squawky duet of "What's New Pussycat?" as their RV rolls cross-country, or Paulie performing with a singing, dancing bird act in an east L.A. bar run by Cheech Marin.

Paulie's running-at-the-mouth commentary can be just as funny. Of the death of his friend, the artist, the film's most poignant moment, he says simply, "Then one day, the cat got her." Say no more.

Paulie is the work of some relative newcomers: It's director John Roberts' second film and writer Laurie Craig's third. They bring with them a fresh perspective but make some classic errors.

The first is overkill: For a bright bird, Paulie repeats himself a lot, as if to keep viewers up to speed on the plot; The second is unabashed sentimentality: devotion to a past loved one is good, but incessant talk about it leads to whining and self-victimization. Paulie would be a better film if Roberts and Craig were loathe to say things twice and quicker to say "Cut." Finally, Roberts and Craig often telegraph their punches. Anyone who can't tell where Paulie is headed needs to get to the movies more often -- like once or twice in a decade.

Still, in a time when movies often talk down to viewers, it's nice to spend some time with a parrot who talks up to us -- and cracks us up as well.

How movies like Paulie get made remains a mystery. That they get made is a blessing.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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