Dir. by David Frankel - 1 hr. 40 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
It's not that anything I saw regarding "The Big Year" looked like it would add up to a decent film, but I secretly held out hope that the stars could add up to something worthwhile, even if that didn't mean a good movie. But I was wrong. Not only was I wrong, but this movie gave me a nosebleed that took the last half-hour of the film to stop (true story). While it's true that I might have looked upon the last third of "The Big Year" a little less favorably because I was watching it with a wad of toilet paper jammed up one of my nostrils, but it's not as if this was an all-time great film up to that point, either.
I don't know if this is based on reality or not (a little Google-fu reveals there is a book of the same name that focuses on this subject in 1998), but in this film, birders can engage in a competition to see who can spot the most species of birds (which runs on the honor system). Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is the current record holder, but feels like his record is beatable, so he decides to engage in another Big Year in order to protect his legacy. This comes much to the chagrin of his wife, Jesse (Rosamund Pike), who is going through fertility treatments so that they can have a child. Also engaging in a Big Year are Brad Harris (Jack Black), who is a divorced thirty-something office-bound slacker, and Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), who is retiring from the company that he founded and has made him wealthy so that he can finally do a Big Year, something he's wanted to do for his entire life. And then they go look at birds.
Let's assume that the source material is, in fact, engaging enough to make a movie based on it. What ends up on the screen ends up mirroring the goal of a Big Year, in that it's a hard-to-explain, pointless-to-many pursuit. Except instead of bird-watching, what the filmmakers seem to have done is taken on the challenge of screwing up the story in the most banal, Hollywood way possible. The characters' names are changed, which has the effect of turning the three leads into generic versions of the characters they usually play. And these generic characters have only the most general conflicts. Owen Wilson's character is the bad guy, but only because he's been the most successful person in this particular pursuit. His villainy comes not through how he treats Brad or Stu (the worst he does is psych-out Stu into sea sickness, and later gives the pair bad directions, sort of), but because he doesn't place his wife first and foremost in his life at all times. This character is bizarre, in the sense that clearly we're all expected to resent success and hate a guy because his first goal isn't putting a baby in his wife right when she demands it. There's even a tearful scene where Jesse gets to throw Kenny's non-family pursuits in his face, because she understands that "no one remembers who comes in second place." Her, of course.
Secondly, we're supposed to accept a CEO as an underdog in this story. It's sort of in tandem with Brad (they end up teaming up), who is the truer underdog because he doesn't have the resources to pursue this endeavor, but what we end up with is Stu bankrolling Brad to go against Kenny. The dynamics of this story are very off, not just because of how Kenny is painted (basically, there's a lot of resentment towards him, but not really because of anything that he does. It's all tell and no show), but also because of how the story treats the pursuit of excellence. It would seem that anything that doesn't result in a man (and this is a mostly male pursuit - the only women involved in birding here are Ellie (Rashida Jones), who is largely there to give a cute falling in love story to offset the story's ugliness between Kenny and his wife, and a freshly-wed bride who is honeymooning with her birder-husband, which seems only to be there to provide a fish-out-of-water character who also is supposed to serve as proof that these guys are tough for roughing it, and instead comes off as a tone-deaf "silly girl" who can't handle anything in the out-of-doors) being a constant 9-to-5er is nothing but strain and heartbreak for the women in their lives (Kenny and Brad are both divorcees, and Stu's wife has to give "I'll miss you dearly, but..." speech to show her sacrifice).
This is a shaky foundation to build a story upon. If you're not going to treat the pursuit itself with some kind of respect (the best explanation that anyone gives as to why they do this is that it's "hard to explain"), and I don't consider having women constantly opposing what the men in their lives have chosen to do (sometimes tearfully), as treating the pursuit with respect, why even do the story in the first place? Whatever comedic possibilities bird-watching offers is completely wasted here. There's no real tension in the script between any of the characters, partially because Owen Wilson's character doesn't function as a villain unless you're a baby-crazed woman, so no one has any motivation for what they do, other than the people involved are good at what they do. But rather than stress that Kenny is dogged in his pursuit (and make that a positive trait instead of focusing on his abandoned wife), and that Brad is some kind of savant in being able to recognize bird-calls, and that Stu is looking to open a new chapter in his life, even the importance these characters place on birding is treated as trivial. And if nothing at all matters in the world depicted except getting your wife knocked up, why devote so much attention to the birds?
I just don't understand the point of "The Big Year." It seems alienating to both men (in that their pursuits are regarded as completely trivial, and any success any of the characters might achieve is deeply resented and comes at a huge cost, which seems to be a persuasive argument of mediocrity as a lifestyle) and women (in that the only two paths here is being ignored by your men in favor of birds or to be Rashida Jones, who falls for Jack Black's generic slacktastic character). It's a complete waste of a lot of comedic talent, and even the birds aren't well-explained enough to be fascinating (other than when Brad finally gets his dad (Brian Dennehy) interested in a small bird, which is the sort of thing that would have gone a long way towards making the subject matter more fascinating - and this is another problem: when your three main characters are experts in their field, and there's no noob involved, there's simply not enough explanation of why what we're looking at is interesting if you're not also an expert in the field of birding, which 99% of us fall into that category).
And then there's the matter of my nosebleed. I'm not saying that "The Big Year" caused my nosebleed, but I was watching it, and then that happened. There may not be a causal relationship, but there's no way that those two events are entirely unrelated, either.
1 / 5 - TV