Review: The Big Year


Would you like to be the very best, like no one ever was? Is finding them your real test, and writing them down your cause? Would you travel across the land, searching far and wide? If so, then you might want to look into the fine hobby of birding. It’s apparently a lot like Pokemon, except that you can’t catch them and make them fight for your pleasure. Oh, and you only encounter Pidgey.

When I posted the trailer for The Big Year and mentioned that it seemed like a paycheck, there was some dissent. Clearly Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson couldn’t be that bad together! They were all very funny men in the past, and they would probably be great together! Plus, The Big Year is directed by the same guy who made Marley & Me, so it couldn’t be too bad. I was just against uplifting family comedies.

And you know what? I’ll admit it right here: I was wrong about something.

Steve Martin doesn’t play Jack Black’s father. What an embarrassing thing to be wrong about!

The Big Year
Director: David Frankel
Release: 10/14/2011
Rating: PG

Birding is apparently one of those hobbies that requires a lot of work without offering much payoff. Hobbyists spend all their time and money searching for rare birds, and once they see them, they write them down on a piece of paper. That’s all. They don’t have to take pictures of the birds or record them. Hell, they don’t even have to see the birds. If they can recognize the bird call, that’s enough reason to mark it down. Most people don’t record the exact number of species they see or hear, but for those that do, there is a fiercely competitive mindset. They don’t just want to see a lot of birds; that would not be enough. No, they want to see the most birds. And they want to see the most birds over the course of one year. Spending that much time on birds during the year would certainly make for…a big year!

Do you see what I did there?

Brad Harris (Jack Black) doesn’t have a lot going for him in life. He’s in his late thirties, divorced, lives with his parents, and has a job he hates. The one thing he has going for him in life is his ability to recognize pretty much any bird by its call alone, something that wouldn’t be terribly useful if he weren’t such an avid birder. Brad decides that the way to turn his life around is to do a Big Year, spending every day from January to December documenting as many types of North American species as he can. Brad strives to beat the world record of 732 species, currently held by Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson). In his travels, Brad befriends fellow birder Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a wealthy CEO looking to end his dealings in the corporate rat race and do a Big Year of his own. Getting away from it all isn’t so easy, however, and the two have to find a balance between their passion for birding and the hurdles that real life throws their way.

You know what? I think birds are pretty boring. It’s nothing against them, but I just don’t think about them much in my day-to-day life. I’m sure a large amount of the people who go to see The Big Year will not think terribly much of them either. One would hope that a movie about three funny men being very passionate about a hobby would be enough to keep the audience interested, but I still came out not caring terribly much about birds. There were a few moments where the characters’ actions were compared to those of birds, and while those were well-done, they weren’t frequent enough to make me care any more about birds.

I do care about a nice shot, and The Big Year has those in droves. The characters travel to some absolutely stunning locations, and they see a lot of very pretty birds. The sets always looked so crisp and inviting, even in harsh environments, that it made me want to travel and check them out for myself. The problem here is that the still shots of birds and nature are so well done that they could not possibly be done by amateurs, and the fact that they’re passed off as something Jack Black caught on his point-and-shoot took me out of the story.

Narration is one of those things that usually shouldn’t be in a movie. Sure, in some cases it can be a charming addition to the world of the movie, but if the story relies on the narration to keep going, there’s a problem. Most movies could easily add a couple of establishing shots and completely do away with the narration. This is definitely the case with The Big Year. Jack Black’s narration is not terribly charming or humorous, and actually goes as far as telling the exact emotions of the other characters instead of, you know, allowing the audience to bond with them through emotional scenes.

The narration isn’t the only thing keeping us from getting to know the characters properly. The writing is jaunty and unnatural, and none of the character’s actions seem realistic. With the exception of Jack Black, who comes off as a whiny loser trying too hard to sound inspirational, the protagonists have little more characterization than “friendly.” A romance between Jack Black and Rashida Jones would never happen in any stretch of the imagination, but I can almost see it happening here because she’s just as bland as everyone else. The friendship between Jack Black and Steve Martin seems particularly strained. I understand overcoming the age gap in the name of a shared passion, but the deep connection they supposedly have is only vaguely shown when Steve Martin is awesome and lets Jack Black mooch off of him with no second thoughts.

That’s another thing: for a movie with what one would assume is a well-defined clock, there’s no real sense of urgency. Jack Black mentions maxing out several credit cards and borrowing a ton of money from his parents, but he still manages to go out and do his thing regardless, so it doesn’t seem like the money is really that big of a deal to him. Steve Martin is worried about his own mortality and missing out on his new grandchild’s life (I know that because the narration told me so), but the contest will be over soon and it’s not like he’s racing against a terminal disease. The only person whose life seems to be falling to pieces without his presence is Owen Wilson, and he’s portrayed as such a cartoonish jerk that it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him.

For a movie about following your dreams and living life to the fullest, The Big Year is surprisingly hollow and dull. If you’re looking for an uninspired weekend movie featuring lackluster performances by well-known actors, you’re in luck! If you’re not, you can always stay home and play Pokemon. At least Pidgey evolves in that one.

Maxwell Roahrig – Hollywood has this talent, and you may have noticed it yourself. They can take three very good comedic actors, and make the most plain, mediocre movie ever made. It’s almost impressive if it weren’t so damn disappointing. Not that I was looking forward to this movie, mind you. It’s just that Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson are very talented dudes. It sucks seeing their talent wasted on such a plain script with odd pacing. Then again, how else to you make a movie about bird watching appealing? Cast three recognizable names and let the money flow. Look, this movie definitely has an audience. And if you’re part of that audience, more power to you. I’m glad you liked the flick. But for the rest of us, this is a movie so plain, you’ll forget to actively avoid it. 50 – Bad