Director: Martin Brest; Screenplay: Eleven writers credited; Cast: Hugh Grant, Jennifer Aniston, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Cera, Julia Roberts, Queen Latifah, Stanley Tucci
(To see the official A Bird in the Hand poster, click here.)
Once every decade or so, a film comes along that’s so familiar, palliative, and obvious, merely focusing on it becomes an exercise in reining in the cultural associations it inspires in your subconscious. Days later—hours in some cases—it becomes difficult for viewers to remember anything about the film, and at best, they are left with distinct emotional sensations akin to a prolonged experience of déjà vu.
The plot of A Bird in the Hand is easy enough to delineate, if you write it down while you’re watching it: Doyle Southampton (Grant), a rakish British lawyer living in New York City, is about to settle down with his smart but high-maintenance girlfriend Jessica Bird (Aniston) when Jessica’s fun-loving, hipster younger sister Cambridge Bird (Deschanel) whose age difference is explained by Jessica calling her “the family accident,” shows up from college and sweeps Doyle off his feet.
Reading this, you may ask how, if they’ve been dating for three years and living together, has Doyle never met his girfriend’s sister before, but this question doesn’t occur to you while you’re watching the film, because by the time Cambridge is introduced, your skills of perception and discernment are so thoroughly benumbed, someone could replace your popcorn with a bucket of tartar sauce and it’d be five minutes before you’d notice or care.
So, with a week before the wedding, Doyle must decide between the Bird sisters, contending with Cambridge’s jealous “just a friend” boy-pal Jimmie (Cera), his sassy, all-seeing law partner Monique (Latifah), the fussy gay wedding planner (Tucci), and his childhood friend and confidante Molly (Roberts). Yes, you’ve seen this all before, from the token sassy non-sexual black character, to the token fussy gay character, to the high-maintenance, put-upon modern woman, to the manic pixie dream girl, to the shy nerdy wallflower dude, to the hate-him-so-much-ya-love him dissolute rake, to the patient and loyal secret crush. And more to the point, you’ve seen it just like this.
For six days, through the rehearsal dinner, pratfalls ensue as Doyle conspires to find ways to spend time alone with Cambridge. Just when Jessica is about to have her suspicions confirmed that her fiancé has been canoodling with her sister, Molly saves the day with a heartwarming alibi—the two of them have just been secretly planning a surprise that will make this the most epic wedding ever. Watching the couple make up, Molly chokes back a single, unselfish tear.
The alibi works until an hour before the church ceremony when Jessica gets lipstick on her veil and walks in on her sister and her fiancé dry-humping in the minister’s private bathroom. The wedding off, chaos ensues: Jimmie, heartbroken, abandons Cambridge at the church and returns to their college alone; Jessica throws all of Doyle’s possessions into the street outside their walkup; Cambridge tells Doyle that she had no idea that Jimmie was in love with her, and dashes back to college to make it up to him. After a torrent of Monique’s finger-wagging I-told-you-so’s, Doyle ends up in an all-night diner with his last friend in the world, his childhood pal Molly. Over burgers and shakes at three in the morning, he realizes that she’s the love of his life, and slips the wedding ring on her finger. The music comes up and we realize that true love always wins in the end.
What’s intriguing about this plot is, actually, the fact that it’s the apotheosis of predictability, packed with tropes so broadly drawn, they seem to be fighting each other to the death. Indeed, Hugh Grant’s character is basically a boxing ring where the two great misogynist female caricatures of our generation, typified by Aniston and Deschanel, are meant to battle it out with each other, and perhaps it’s a fortunate commentary on the future of cinema that neither of them win.
A sequel (titled either A Bird in the Hand 2 In the Bush or A Bird in the Hand Two: In the Bush) has been green-lit, this time, apparently, with Jennifer Aniston’s character choosing between two suitors; one who’s bad for her who she lusts for, and one who’s good for her who she ignores. With the assumption that this sequel will meet expectations at the box office, and merely pass two hours of unmarked time on future international flights for years to come, they may use the studio’s production budget to write everybody royalty checks in advance, and skip making the actual film.
Perhaps they’re right to not do and say they did. Walking out of A Bird in the Hand, I was convinced that I never needed to see another movie again. So absolute is this film about recycling—even codifying—a bland familiarity, it literally breaks one’s unconscious desire to experience cinema, the way that the pureed meatloaf of a senior home dinner might make an octogenarian lose her memory of how to use a fork. In having neither Deschanel or Aniston end up with Hugh Grant, it’s a bit like telling the audience that you are not the winner here, that the film industry has been playing us for fools, and we like it. I was mildly disappointed, the way I used to be disappointed by airplane food or office Christmas parties—a disappointment mitigated by the understood quality of the holistic experience.
Then, less than a week later, I passed the poster at my bus stop and realized that I couldn’t remember a single detail from the film. Within a day, were it not for the ticket stub I’d kept in my wallet, anyone could convince me that I never saw this movie at all. I actually had to see it again to write this review, and to my amazement, the theatre was packed, just like it was on opening weekend, and, I could swear, with many of the same people, and once again, all us walked in with mild anticipation and left with mild disappointment. I thought I was either bat-shit crazy or they were.
As it turns out, neither is true. My complete amnesia in regards to seeing this film turns out to be a widely experienced phenomenon across America. The film has been near the top of the box office for six weeks, and reason is that people are seeing the movie two, three, or even four times, forgetting they’ve seen it already.
So if you’re still compelled to see A Bird in the Hand, fine. But for all of us who want to see an original movie again in our lifetimes, please keep your ticket stub in a place you see every day, or in your wallet, or on your dashboard, or stapled to the sleeve of your coat—whatever it takes. I, and the greater movie-going public, thank you in advance, because we won’t remember why.
J. Ryan Stradal's writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and The Nervous Breakdown, among other places. He also volunteers with students at 826LA, helps create products and materials for the Echo Park and Mar Vista Time Travel Marts, works in TV, and co-produces the literary/culinary series Hot Dish. His name has appeared one time in the credits of a feature film.