Birding: it's a sport or hobby that treads the line between familiar and mysterious, requiring no introduction but not a subject that many will consider themselves an expert on. For Hollywood, that probably sounds like the perfect premise for a comedy, and thus, we have director David Frankel's adaptation of Mark Obmascik's nonfiction book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession. Like nearly all non-fiction books, the tried-and-true semi-comic template grafted onto it for this fictional film isn't a perfect fit, but the result should agree with anyone not frightened off by the word "pleasant."
Separately, three men embark on what John Cleese's voice-over narration helpfully informs us is a tradition born out of hunting. Every year, people will travel all across the country in the hopes of spotting as many birds between January 1st and December 31st in a competition called a "Big Year." The first is Brad Harris (Jack Black), a computer programmer whose passion for birds wins out over his limited resources. The second is standing Big Year champ Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), who claims he just wants to check out the lay of the land, but is really looking for any excuse to defend his record. Finally, retiring businessman Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) is ready to take the trip he's been dreaming about his whole life. All three leave family behind -- mom and pop Brenda and Raymond (Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy) and wives Jessica (Rosamund Pike) and Edith (JoBeth Williams), respectively) -- to brave every weather condition and every climate, in order to claim the record.
The biggest problem with The Big Year is that there's nothing to adapt. There's an idea here, in that The Big Year is a wacky-sounding, wide-spanning event that provides exaggerated personalities and an opportunity to hit up a wide range of locations, but only birders are going to be that interested in watching birds for two hours, and most of the bird material in The Big Year is faked by necessity. Instead, Frankel and screenwriter Howard Franklin have to hope the audience is willing to invest in the leads and their journey.
Lucky for Frankel, then, that he is able to coax decent (if not return-to-form) performances out of all three of his comic leads. In particular, Black is able to reign in his tiring comic energy in order to make Brad the hero of the film, someone the audience can root for. The character isn't too obsessive or too clumsy, and Black gives Brad's passion for birding enough juice that it feels authentic. It helps, too, that potentially tired subplots like his strained relationship with his dad and his maybe relationship with a fellow birder (Rashida Jones) are reduced in the face of his friendship with Stu, formed over mutual competitive investment in beating Bostick. Like Black, Wilson lays off his increasingly tired comic neuroses to play the role pretty straight, which means being a showoff and an egomaniac.
Although the screenplay for The Big Year is no great shakes, I'm pleased to say that every time I was sure something predictable and cloying was going to happen, the film managed to do something a little different, even if it doesn't fly off the beaten path. The fact that the Franklin doesn't pull any punches with Bostick's thread or try too hard with the Black/Jones relationship is especially appreciated. Cleese's documentary-style narration is more of a dead weight, feeling like a desperate attempt to retain some book-like details, but if it has to happen, at least the part is cast well. It'd be easy to say that the film have used a little more comic bite (the same bite that informed Franklin's work on the 1990 lost-gem Bill Murray comedy Quick Change), but The Big Year sets its sights on a certain type of filmgoer and finds it, finding the best route along the beaten path.
The DVD, Video, and Audio
20th Century Fox provided a screener disc for review, so I cannot effectively comment on the picture, audio, or packaging of this release. Final copy is slated to include a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks, a Dolby Digital 5.1 Descriptive Track for the theatrical version, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles.
The only extra feature on this disc is the option to choose between the theatrical (1:39:57) and extended cut (1:43:03) of the film. As I did not see the film in theaters, I can't go into details on the differences between the two versions, but I didn't feel like the long version was overlong or slow-paced. Those with Blu-Ray players should note that the Blu-Ray version of this title (reviewed here by Ryan Keefer) also includes deleted scenes, outtakes, and a featurette called "The Big Migration."
Trailers for In Time and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel play before the main menu. No trailer for The Big Year has been included.
The Big Year is a nice movie. Some people won't like that. There's no heart-stopping drama, no gut-busting laugh-out-loud moments, and no huge plot twists. It's a perfectly congenial rental for viewers who just want to kick back and catch something enjoyable, especially seeing as there aren't any extra features beyond the longer version of the film.
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