From The Parallax Review Vaults: Bird on a Wire (1990)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Bird on a Wire was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Encore Mystery

Roughly seventy minutes into Bird on a Wire, a helicopter crashes into a mess of shrieking metal but doesn’t explode. For one second, I was congratulating the film on avoiding at least one cliché. Then the helicopter exploded. A better capsule of what went wrong with the film would be hard to find. Given every opportunity to do something different with a familiar genre, the filmmakers tease the audience with the promise of something fresh and then settle for the routine.

Marianne (Goldie Hawn) is a successful corporate attorney with an ex-husband she can’t stand, a milquetoast boyfriend who she only interacts with over the phone, and an inability to get over her college boyfriend who apparently crashed his plane in Mexico and died fifteen years earlier. While in Detroit on business, she stops at a gas station and believes she recognizes the service attendant as Rick (Mel Gibson), her supposedly dead ex-boyfriend. Rick plays dumb and, despite her suspicions, she goes on her way. Unable to get Rick out of her mind, she later returns to the station to witness Sorensen (David Carradine) and Diggs (Bill Duke), two crooked DEA agents, preparing to execute Rick. Of course, Marianne saves Rick by driving her car into the confrontation and the stage is set for a romantic comedy / action / road movie as the two old lovers bicker and reconnect while avoiding the bad guys and the cops who think they are murderers and bank robbers.

In order for a formula movie to work, all of the pieces have to fall into perfect harmony. The script has to be sharp with witty dialogue. The performances of the supporting cast have to be sufficiently solid to sell the inevitable scenes of exposition needed to move the plot along. But most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads has to not only be present, but electric. With Bird on a Wire, the script is adequate, the supporting cast is barely present, and the chemistry between Gibson and Hawn is completely one-sided.

Gibson is strong in this film. He is likable and has a feather-light touch with the material. In his portrayal of Rick, it’s easy to see why Marianne has not been able to leave thoughts of him behind. But as good as Gibson is, he can’t keep Hawn from delivering a performance that is truly painful. She overplays the material, tackling her scenes with such broad attempts at physical comedy, that she makes Jim Carrey look subtle. That her comedic contributions are D.O.A. is bad enough, but she kills the romantic portion of the movie by looking like she would rather kiss a dead fish than have anything to do with Gibson.

John Badham has experience with this type of film, having made the superior romantic comedy/action film, Stakeout. That was a fun film that managed to get around a plot that included a romance built partly on voyeurism. With Bird on a Wire, he phones in the effort. Unable to coax a decent performance out of his leading lady, it feels like he gave up on trying to breathe any kind of life into the film. The result is pure mediocrity that is competently put together, but ultimately empty of any soul.

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