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Movie Review: The Big Year

October 19, 2011

I’m a little late to this party. My computer screen was lost in a freak whaling tragedy that left seven dead and my poor laptop in the shop down the road. So right now I’m writing this on my girlfriend’s computer while she’s at work and I don’t have anything better to do (I already tried on all her clothes).

So,¬†The Big Year. It’s probably best known as “the bird-watching comedy” starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black. However, none of those three descriptors is totally accurate. They don’t “watch” birds so much as spot and keep track of them; they are “birders,” and among their circles, the titular “Big Year” is an event wherein one tries to spot more birds in a year than have ever been spotted.

The current record holder is Kenny Bostwick (Owen Wilson), whose count is 730-plus. And he faces competition from Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a CEO taking his own big-year, and Brad Harris (Jack Black), a middle-class birder hungry to make a name for himself. The Big Year takes them all around the US and in competition with each other and fellow birders who seem to endlessly ask whether they’re, in fact, doing a Big Year. (And if you’re not, then what’s the point in birding? Does it then become menial bird-watching?)

“Comedy” isn’t really the right term either, because it’s not especially funny. At first the film plays with the idea of exploring the seamy underbelly of such an innocent-sounding pasttime, but it’s not long before the steam runs out. Sure, it’s a funny-enough idea, but the most that’s made of it is having the characters plot and scheme against each other, and it’s just not that funny seeing the same gags recycled for 101 minutes. Worse yet is the constant reminder of each scene’s date, giving us a recap of how much more of the film is left. I heard at least one voice in the audience complain about it still being May. Not good.

Director David Frankel (Marley & Me) and writer Howard Franklin (Quick Change, The Name of the Rose) seem to understand this, so they add in dramatic subplots involving each of the men’s home lives. These wouldn’t be unwelcome but they’re not funny nor particularly dramatic, worse, their arcs feel played out just as soon as they’re introduced. Kenny’s dedication to birding strains his marriage. Stu’s going to be a grandfather. Brad wants his father’s respect. It does. He becomes one. He earns it. No twists or surprises. And even the romantic subplot feels especially unearned.

And finally, the “stars” aren’t given enough free reign to have some fun. Martin, Wilson, and Black seem chosen simply for their appeal to certain demographics instead of their talents, since the script doesn’t play to their strengths or even seem aware of their personalities beyond the marketing. Martin, Wilson, and Black have some of the most distinct comic personas in Hollywood–they may play the same characters in every film, but that’s the draw–we want to see Martin go bananas; Wilson be the weary, folksy buddy; Black be the energetic performer, and yet here their roles could seriously have been played by anyone. There’s no problem in promising a safe film, but this never delivers the goods.

There really isn’t much to add. It’s not horrible, it’s not good. More like the bird dropping that gets on your windshield and that you can easily wash off than the kind that gets on the most unreachable part of the top and eats away at your finish.


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