Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Big Year: A Review


It is never a good sign when while watching a movie, you write in your notebook, "seriously, I would have walked out by now".  It isn't that The Big Year is objectionable in its content.  Far from it: the idea of following three men as they pursue the goal of spotting the most birds in one year is fraught with comedic possibilities.  However, The Big Year, based on the book by Mark Obmascik, bungles this idea by being disjointed, confused, cliched, and unwilling to have us care about either the characters or their passion.

In voiceover, the story is narrated by Brad (Jack Black).  He is a 36-year-old divorced man who may or may not live at home (I think it's the former) with an excessively supportive mom (Dianne Wiest) and excessively dismissive dad (Brian Dennehy). 

Brad, despite very limited resources, has decided to embark on a "Big Year": where people attempt to locate the largest variety of birds in one calendar year.  The current Big Year champion is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), who counted 732 birds last year.  Kenny, a contractor, is determined to win again, even if it means neglecting his wife (Rosamond Pike) and her desire to have a baby.  Brad wants to achieve the goal of dethroning Kenny. 

Also in the mix is Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a successful businessman who has finally decided to retire, and is also going for a Big Year in his retirement.

Now, the three at first don't know each other, but soon Brad and Stu become friends even though Brad is unaware that Stu is his competition, while Kenny continues his efforts to beat them all.  Over the course of the year, Kenny continues neglecting his wife, at one point skipping out on an insemination visit to see the snow owl that has continuously eluded him. Stu keeps getting dragged into a major negotiation (costing him a chance to win by missing a major bird-watching event in Alaska), and Brad both starts to bond with his father and starts a tentative romance with a birdwatcher who is doing it for the pleasure of it, Ellie (Rashida Jones). 

Image result for the big year movieI can start by saying that any movie where Jack Black is able to successfully romance Rashida Jones isn't a comedy; it's a science-fiction film.

The main problem with Howard Franklin's adaptation is that it just was never focused.  Like the people going from place to place in search of the elusive rufous-caped warbler (which Kenny says he found perched on a toilet brush in a cabin near El Paso), we get only little hints of the three people but no real insight into who they are. 

It's a curious thing that neither Brad, Kenny, or Stu actually appear to derive any pleasure from bird-watching.  Now, I'm aware that perhaps this is commentary on how men make even the most mundane activity into a competition, but my experience has been that people do derive pleasure from competing (certainly while watching my friends in the heights of fantasy football frenzy or the NCAA basketball brackets).  These guys look almost bored trying to get the largest number of birds.

I digress to question a point of logic when it comes to the rufous-caped warbler.  It is true that this bird rarely wanders up to Texas (where El Paso is), making it a rare sight in the U.S. El Paso, however, is in the desert.  As far as I, lifelong El Pasoan, know, there are no cabins near El Paso; the nearest cabins would be in perhaps Carlsbad or Ruidoso, New Mexico.  Was there no actual research into geography?

It isn't that the three actors didn't try.  Martin was on the whole good as the older man seeking some joy after spending his entire life making money and providing for his family (which is the only one of the three to be supportive of his casual goal of winning the Big Year). 

Image result for the big year movie
Though Wilson's character is suppose to be the villain, Wilson is just too nice a persona to be seen as ruthless.  He appears clever, sometimes duplicitous, but not evil.  He is shown to be thoughtless and selfish when it comes to his wife, but even then Pike's near hysterical calls to get pregnant might make someone run for the hills.  Given how he is, I wondered why he was so upset at the idea that Jessica MIGHT be having an affair with the hot son of his competition. 

Even more odd, although given that Brad is ostensibly the main character (since he is narrating the story, his story was not interesting.  The overprotective mother who even gives him credit cards to supplement his goal and the cantankerous and ill father who only late in the game appreciates the rightness of his son's desires is so cliche you're just waiting for it. 

In short, while we have Brad's story as the heart of The Big Year, the stories of Stu and Kenny have the effect of inserting themselves into it without actually connecting themselves.

Despite all their efforts (even with Anjelica Huston, Joel McHale, Kevin Pollak, and Jim Parsons in smaller roles), the actors couldn't make the separate stories interesting enough to make one want to care or continue watching.  I can't even bring myself to blame director David Frankel.  It's just that the way the story was told made it uninteresting.  Somehow, the characters didn't connect and one just became frustrated waiting for the next semi-comic setup one was waiting for. 

The Big Year could have been better if a few changes were made, such as having us grow to see how this passion for bird-watching could be fun for people.  As it stands, The Big Year is a weak effort that ends up boring.  I'm tempted to say The Big Year is for the birds, but I am too fond of fowls to torture them.     


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