Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Big Year Is Another Decent, Little, Movie

The Good: Moments of humor, Good acting, Moments of character
The Bad: Predictable plot and character arcs
The Basics: The Big Year showcases some wonderful acting from Steve Martin and Jack Black, but is ultimately an unambitious story packaged with great nature footage.

I have, in the interest of full disclosure, no real interest in birds or birding or even movies that are about competitions. I don’t think I have ever seen an entire episode of The Amazing Race even. I am, however, discovering that I like the works of Steve Martin more and more and as a result, I was eager to watch The Big Year. The Big Year became an opportunity for my wife and I to have a long-distance date, which was pretty nice. I picked up the film on DVD, she got a copy in Michigan and we watched it together, from 500 miles apart.

Usually, my personal anecdotes serve only as introduction, but in this case, it is germane. One of the important themes of The Big Year is loneliness and it’s a lonely thing to be apart from the one I love. Watching The Big Year, I would have expected more of a tug, given how many characters experience frustration, emotional tugs, or outright loss based upon how their attempt to be the number one birder (bird spotter) in the world progresses. But I didn’t. The Big Year does what it sets out to do well, but not in a superlative fashion that really made me feel enthusiastic about recommending the film.

Was it bad? No. But it did not rise to extraordinary. It did not leave much for my wife and I to discuss afterward, either.

Brad Harris is a tech support worker near a nuclear power plant who has his eyes set on breaking Kenny Bostick’s 732 bird birding record. Single and using funds from his reluctant father, Brad prepares to squeeze in a year’s worth of bird watching for his “big year” while still keeping his job. Stu Preissler is finally retiring (this time for real) in order to have his big year after a lifetime of corporate deals and putting off his own wants. Financially solid, he is supported in his endeavor by his wife, who understands birding is important to him, but does not share his passion for it. Kenny Bostick, for his part, feels utterly insecure in his new world record. So, despite his wife Jessica taking fertility treatments so they might have children, Kenny rushes off to “set the pace” for the new year.

What follows are a series of encounters as Brad and Stu meet and become friends, while denying that they are actually working on their big year. Stu takes Brad under his wing and keeps the young man from starving on the road. He also encourages Brad to talk with birder Ellie, who does all sorts of bird calls. Kenny’s paranoia soon begins to show and he begins playing games and making maneuvers in order to keep Brad and Stu off-guard and on the path away from breaking his world record. In the process, Brad and Stu experience betrayal, loss, and come to understand just what is truly important to each of them.

What is enjoyable about The Big Year is watching how each of the three main characters deal with the tugging on them by outsiders. Clearly, all three of these men are happiest when they are birding. Stu seems the most financially set for pursuing his big year and though he misses the birth of his grandson, he continues with his plan to bird. Even the incompetence of his two former employees, Jim and Barry, is not enough to distract him for very long. By the time the film is nearing its end and Jim and Barry beg him to return to his business as the new CEO, it is obvious well in advance how he will respond. In fact, Steve Martin’s delivery is so clear as Stu that it is shocking he needed to make it explicit for Jim and Barry!

At the other end of the spectrum is Brad. Brad is trying to do all of the travel for the year on $14,000. At the outset of the film, he hits his father up for $5,000 and his mother volunteers to be Brad’s travel agent. Brad struggles and when his work actually needs him to stay for a weekend, he does so only to be able to fund the next leg of his trip. The romantic subplot between him and Ellie is appropriately cute and heartbreaking and makes for a nice way for Stu to help guide Brad. Brad is one of the only characters Jack Black has played with whom it was easy to empathize.

Experiencing far more complicated emotions – though Brad has to deal with his father’s failing health and Stu wrestles with what it means to be absent from the lives of his wife, children and new grandchildren – is Kenny. Kenny quickly realizes that the top is a very tenuous place and his journey rapidly transforms from a something enjoyable into a desperate attempt to hold onto what he has. The choices Kenny makes are often disappointing or disturbing and even from five hundred miles away, I could hear my wife yelling “no!” when Kenny had the opportunity to be at the right place at the right time with his wife.

The acting in the Big Year is the film’s superlative aspect. While much of the narrative has the feel – and even look – of a Wes Anderson film, David Frankel gets decent performances out of Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. The only questionable moment of performance in The Big Year could even be written off as a character moment! As Jack Black’s Brad searches for his father in a snow-covered woods, he does not look down at the snow for tracks, he keeps looking up into the trees. That was a baffling choice to me, from a rational perspective, but it could make sense for a guy who is always used to finding what he is looking for up in the air, as opposed to down on the ground.

Now on DVD, The Big Year has both the theatrical and extended cuts, but no other bonus features. That makes it much easier to recommend for a viewing, than for one to buy to add to their permanent collection.

For other works with Owen Wilson, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Hall Pass
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Darjeeling Limited
Night At The Museum
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
The Royal Tenenbaums
Meet The Parents
Bottle Rocket


For other movies, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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