Films that try to explain abstract first-world passions such as wine tasting traditionally do not do well at the box office unless the underlying story they tell proves to be transcendent, putting said passion in the background. The Big Year puts the passion of bird-watching out in the forefront, and the film quickly came and went in the theaters, not even making $10 million despite a wide (more than 2,000 theater) release with three recognizable faces as its stars. So now that it's out on video, can it perhaps realize a new life?
Howard Franklin (Quick Change) adapted the Mark Obmascik novel into a screenplay that David Frankel (Marley & Me) directed. The film follows the lives of three different people who each share the joy of bird watching. Brad (Jack Black, Gulliver's Travels) is divorced and lives with his parents, and whose enthusiasm for
'birding' would seem to be the most pure. Stu (Steve Martin, Baby Mama) is the head of a large company and is juggling the future of the company and himself as he is near retirement and about to become a grandfather. Kenny (Owen Wilson, Hall Pass) holds the current record of most number of bird types spotted, and is out again to fend off all comers to the throne.
There is something in the way that Frankel frames the story that makes understanding the desire to go bird watching (or travel to a distant place in the world to witness something most would not find as enjoyable). I think this is due to Black, who provides voiceover in various moments of the film. As one who has not particularly enjoyed his previous few films, I rather liked his performance here. It is one where he carries the depth nicely and Brad is a restrained type of guy. Black plays this type of character well, and normally when he is given a position to be, well, himself, is when things go awry. In this is tamped down and the result is nice. As one who has done his fair share of traveling for the indescribable, his desire to drop things and go is the most tangible to me and it works.
It is when we get into Stu and Kenny's dilemmas where things get murky. Stu is juggling the life of his company with two assistants (played by Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak) with wanting to do the 'bird thing,' and not only does Martin disappoint in the role, I was left wondering what he was doing in the film to begin with. He disappears into the role of Stu and is nondescript, showing little in the way of conflict with his professional life. And left to enjoy the fruits of his family, there was a lack of credible emotion invested in him for the viewer. Along the same lines, Wilson's character is one who is set up to be on the slightly smarmy side, but as the film goes along he seems either reluctant or unaware of how to convey this, even as the story pushes him more and more into the antagonist that he should be.
The plight that Martin and Wilson undergo is also pushed into the rest of the cast and story. Each character goes through their various conflicts in order to see a rare bird, and save for Martin, Wilson and Black go through their own romantic problems. Wilson's wife in the film is attempting to have a baby, while Black has struck up a friendship with a fellow bird watcher (played by Rashida Jones from Parks and Recreation). Sprinkled into all of this is occasional (and additional voiceover from Monty Python member John Cleese, attempting to frame the whole thing with your prototypical nature special vibe.
While The Big Year tries to make the incomprehensible a little more relatable, they appear to have lost faith in the story by overcompensating on the usual mechanisms that are for lack of a more artistic word, boring. Sure, Black does a nice and welcome turn as the closest thing to a hero the film has, but the film fails to do much to woo a viewer past that, despite an admirable job to make one appreciate bird watching. To put it another way, the creative forces behind the film never seem to spot the right bird.
The Blu-ray Disc:
There is little doubt that the 2.35:1 widescreen, AVC encoded high-definition presentation gets ample opportunity to show off the wilderness, as it should. Greens are lush and vivid, the browns of the Joshua Tree area look natural, and coming in to the interiors, those also bring out textures, and image detail in many sequences is sharp. Flesh tones appear accurate and black levels are deep. There are moments of image haloing in some of the interiors (a spat Wilson has with his wife comes to mind), but overall the disc looks good.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track would appear to not do too much at first glance, but as you watch the movie you realize it is handling a number of events with ease. Things like riding a boat during a storm and being in a small plane to a remote Alaskan island are echoed effectively in the soundstage, with subtle ambient effects places through the channels to put you in the middle of the experience. Quieter, more environmental shots include a soft layer of outdoor noise that is convincing but not intrusive. Dialogue sounds strong during the film and the entire listening experience is pleasant.
The BD-50 disc includes the theatrical versions (1:40:02) and an extended version that, coming in a little more than three minutes longer (1:43:09) would seem to not bring much more to the table. Besides, when there are a bunch of deleted/extended scenes on the disc already, as this one does (12, 17:31). The discs include more exposition to Black's romantic dalliance with Jones' character, along with much more voiceover work from Cleese. The ending is a little better, but that's not saying much. The gag reel (5:58) has got a little bit of everything, goofy takes, flubbed lines and general goof-offery, while "The Big Migration" (18:28) is the closest thing to an EPK the disc has, as the cast and crew discuss the production's shoot in British Columbia and other locales and the logistics involved in getting it to work. A standard-definition disc is included as part of the package (and is where the images are taken for the review), along with a redeemable code for a digital copy.
With a pleasant performance by Jack Black, The Big Year tries valiantly but does not reach the bar it sets for itself. From a technical perspective there is nothing to complain about here, but it is a bit hollow on the supplements. It may be worth a rental to see a change of pace film, but past that, The Big Year is better left fleeting like the birds it spends 100 minutes trying to find.