Mark Reviews Movies

The Big Year


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Frankel

Cast: Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Rosamund Pike, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, JoBeth Williams, Rashida Jones, Anthony Anderson, Joel McHale, Kevin Pollak, Jim Parsons, Tim Blake Nelson, Anjelica Huston

MPAA Rating: PG (for language and some sensuality)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 10/14/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 13, 2011

Pleasant to the point that it's wholly disposable, The Big Year tells the story of a man obsessed and two other men on the fast track to joining him. The main joke is that their obsession is with birdwatching, a typically relaxing and leisurely activity that becomes a competitive sport in the hands of this trio, each determined to win a competition that will bring them fame in the eyes of only a select group of people. By the way, the truly passionate and devoted followers would never call it "birdwatching."  It's "birding," and the mere mention of the other term elicits instant frustration from one of the protagonists.

Birding is presented here as a MacGuffin, so whatever one calls it, the pursuit ultimately only means something to the three lead characters and a host of ancillary and background ones that frantically run to and fro at the mere mention of a unique species of bird flying nearby. The frenzied nature of this cross-country hunt seems to defeat the purpose of birdwatching, or perhaps that is the sole purpose. It certainly is to these characters.

Our omniscient narrator is Brad Harris (Jack Black), a divorced man in his late 30s ("It's the birding," he and his later friend have to admit) who works at a nuclear power plant who has spent his life planning to accomplish a "Big Year."  That's a yearlong expedition and contest to spot and/or hear as many different species of bird as possible in the continental United States (All of this is explained in an amusingly introduced animated segment, featuring the voice of John Cleese as the British (as it must always be) "Historical Montage Narrator"). The person with the most recorded species wins. There are no checks or balances; the entire competition runs on the honor system.

Also setting forth to fulfill a lifelong dream—though at a later stage in his life—is Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), the founder and CEO of a successful company. He's finally retiring after at least one previous, failed attempt to do so. His successors (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak) are certain that Stu is only one who can lead the company to future prosperity, and so just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in.

Finally, there's Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson)—just "Bostick" to his friends and enemies alike. Bostick holds the current record of eyeing 732 different species of bird in a calendar year and, convinced that his accomplishment is in jeopardy, decides to once again attempt a Big Year to surpass his own record, solidifying his shot at immortality.

They all have their own personal and/or professional conflicts with which to deal. Brad must maintain a full-time schedule at his job, using up his collected sick and vacation days to travel as much as possible. His mother (Diane Wiest) understands his desire to make something of himself, even offering her services as an unofficial travel agent for his trips and a credit card with a $5,000 limit when his savings evaporates. His father (Brian Dennehy) is not as sympathetic, regularly questioning his son's life goal. Howard Franklin's screenplay (based on journalist Mark Obmascik's nonfiction account of the 1998 Big Year, making the movie a true story with only the facts being changed, according the winking opening text) wisely doesn't overplay the father-son quarrel, which allows the inevitable turning point in which Brad's father starts to understand his son's ambition seem less of an inevitability.

Everyone in Stu's family, especially his wife (JoBeth Williams), is onboard with his decision. Those pesky former colleagues keep calling him to beg for his presence at important meetings, and his first grandchild will be born in the summer (He's also dealing with his mortality, Brad's voice-over informs us—a detail of which we don't expect Brad's voice-over to be aware). Otherwise, everything is just fine with Stu, who becomes fast friends with Brad and, after a few stumbling blocks (When Brad reveals he is doing a Big Year, Stu does not reciprocate the information, which Brad finds out online, and it becomes an easily reconcilable thing for a brief time), teams up with him to outdo Bostick.

Director David Frankel keeps the pace lively and the tone affectionate. There's a genuine sense of mildly crazy camaraderie amongst these characters, and even the antagonism is good-natured. The rumors that Bostick might be cheating are dismissed with a simple conversation between Stu and his rival, and the obligatory life lessons are subtly entrenched in the arcs of the characters. The scenery changes quickly, as they encounter computer-generated bird after computer-generated bird (We can only hope that the mating ritual of two Bald Eagles is legit).

The movie feels rushed, of course, and in the process, it solves its minimal conflicts too easily. The unintentional heart of The Big Year is Bostick's suffering wife Jessica (Rosmund Pike), who has plans of starting a family with her inattentive, preoccupied husband. The movie's most honest scene is a simple one: Bostick, alone, in a deserted Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve. It's nice to think that men as driven as Brad, Stu, and Bostick might find some contentment, but I envision plenty of lonely holidays spent in abandoned eateries in the future.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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