The Big Year
Directed by: David Frankel
Cast: Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin
Running Time: 1 hr 29 mins
Release Date: October 14, 2011
PLOT: Three birders (bird watchers) compete in a friendly competition to see who can spot the most birds in North America in this annual event known as The Big Year.
WHO’S IT FOR? Do you like nice? Sometimes it’s needed, right? This is a feel-good semi-adult comedy that has underdogs, some laughs and a niche subject.
EXPECTATIONS: A small comedy with Steve Martin, sold. I don’t need to know anything else. Plus, Wilson is coming off Midnight in Paris and perhaps is deciding to choose his roles more carefully.
Jack Black as Brad Harris: Black is back as a somewhat normal guy. What I mean is, it’s not all prat falls and flatulence. Brad has a full-time job he doesn’t love, is divorced, and has a dad (Brian Dennehy) who doesn’t appreciate him. It’s easy to root for Brad. Black also narrates the film. The only odd thing about that is he clearly is narrating as someone who has access to the whole story, not just his perspective.
Steve Martin as Stu Preissler: Stu is a rich CEO who has dedicated his life to working hard, making money, loving his wife, and NOT following his passion to look at birds. Finally, he gets his shot. Just like Black, Stu is a somewhat normal, nice guy. From our perspective, Stu has it made, so really there is not much to truly care about with this character. That’s why it is a HUGE bonus that Martin is playing this guy. We like Martin, therefore we like Stu.
Owen Wilson as Kenny Bostick: The closest thing we have to a villain in this film is Kenny Bostick. You know Newman in “Seinfeld”? That’s how you need to say Bostick’s name. Really, Kenny is an over-competitive man who believes this is the one thing he can be great at. He’s the record holder with spotting 732 different bird species in a calendar year. Sure, his pursuit causes problems at home with his wife who is desperately trying to get pregnant, but it doesn’t make him evil. I liked when Kenny was pulling strings to get some extra birds, but was never attached to his personal life.
Rest of Cast: There are too many to name. Look at this list (and I’m even leaving some out): Jim Parsons, Rosamund Pike, JoBeth Williams, Rosamund Pike, Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Campbell, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston, Joel McHale, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Anderson, Kevin Pollak, and Corbin Bernsen. Not one of them “nailed it.” The script didn’t really call for it. Pollak gets a couple of basic laughs as his former boss Stu’s love of birds is affecting corporate mergers. Tim Blake Nelson breaks his arm in pursuit of a bird and it shows the intensity of the passion these people have. Jones is a potential love interest for Brad but it simply feels way too convenient. Overall though, it seems like a waste to have all of these names, but never make me feel like I wanted more of them.
TALKING: Oddly, I didn’t feel like I walked out of the film with a brand new pile of bird knowledge. Sure, there are a couple of moments, but considering the subject matter, I figured I’d be stopping to see the birds. Wilson’s best laugh comes when he doesn’t compare himself to Gandhi, but instead Mozart. Wilson and Black have a couple of heart to hearts which showcase a nice friendship. When Black and Dennehy share some screen time at the end, as son and father, they’re pulling on the heart-strings a little too hard. You’ll always call serious bird watchers birders, from now on. Also, they explain the competition of “The Big Year,” which means you can hear or see the bird, and you don’t need to take a picture. That’s right, it’s the honor system.
SIGHTS: It’s nice to look at this film. After all, they hit many places around North America including Attu Island, which I had never thought of before. It was sad to see a couple of stock footage shots of these birds, but I can understand the difficulty trying to capture some of the rarer ones. It looked like a woodpecker, hummingbird and maybe a couple of others were CGI birds, but were impressively done. Also, blink and you miss it, Martin does his “Wild and Crazy Guy” dance from SNL days.
SOUNDS: Yes, there are a couple of bird songs. “Surfin’ Bird” is Brad’s ringtone, which of course made me think of “The Family Guy.” Eels performs “I Like Birds” which seems perfectly written for the film, but came out years ago.
BEST SCENE: For me, it was watching the bald eagles dance in the sky. Those are the “bird moments” I thought this film would be filled with.
ENDING: I’m totally fine with it. Having certain characters realize what is truly important in their lives fits for this “nice” movie.
QUESTIONS: If one person sees a dozen more birds than the other, and we’re talking 700+ bird species, doesn’t it seem both have become obsessed and sacrificed?
REWATCHABILITY: I could, but I’d rather spend my time watching something else. Fine, I guess I could go for a hike and see some birds on my own.
The Big Year could be one of those three word reviews. It is nice. I could have ended there. It’s one of those films that I won’t give much thought going forward, but enjoyed it just enough while I was watching. Frankel doesn’t do anything particularly wrong with this film, but I never truly got the obsession, or the normal lives either. Birders are an obsessive group of people, especially when trying to attack the competition known as “The Big Year.” Then again, it’s a nice competition, based on the honor system and it seems it’s more of a personal victory (as opposed to scoring endorsements after your victory). So, we have a competition that can’t quite drive the movie, and then real-life moments that seem almost squeezed into the film. There’s nothing special with the father-son moments, the husband-wife moments, or the man-corporation moments. For this movie to have been memorable, they needed an obsessive director. You give this subject to Wes Anderson or Christopher Guest and it could be the talk of the town. As it is, The Big Year isn’t exactly for the birds. But again, it’s nice.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10