The Big Year (2011)

Posted on August 21, 2013

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Brad Harris (Jack Black) is a birder (bird-watcher, amateur ornithologist) who works in graphic design and lives with his parents (Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy). He wants to have a “big year,” a year in which he records sightings of more birds than anyone else.

He’s competing with contractor Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), and former “big year” alum Stu Preissler (Steve Martin).

Short Verdict

It tries too hard at the wrong things.

Longer Review

If you’re my age, you might remember back when Saturday Night Live was funny, and home to stars like Jim Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and, yes, Steve Martin.

As Steve Martin’s career has grown, and he’s tried his hand at drama, I’ve followed him. He’s great.

On the other hand, Jack Black used up all the goodwill I had towards him when he made Year One. As I said at Forces of Geek when I reviewed that movie, The X-Files, Shallow Hal, Tenacious D, High Fidelity, Saving Silverman, Orange County, The School of Rock, Be Kind Rewind, and Tropic Thunder were not enough to make me like Year One. What Nacho Libre and King Kong didn’t kill, Year One did.

Owen Wilson gets a pass. I like him, but I’m not a huge fan.

Fortunately, all three actors give great performances. I found Black’s Brad Harris sympathetic. Wilson’s character is devious and ambitious. Martin’s character is struggling with priorities.

The problem is that this movie wants to be about too many things.

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It hints at birder life. It shows flashes of dedication bordering on obsession, camaraderie, and competition. None of which really goes anywhere.

It’s supposed to set up conflicts between Harris, Preissler, and Bostick; and between each of them and their lives. The trouble is, it doesn’t invest us, the audience, in birding as a worthwhile activity. We do not see how it contributes to science, the arts, or society.

As a result, we keep rooting for Harris to spend time with his dad, and for Preissler to accept retirement and spend time with his wife. Since JoBeth Williams plays Edith Preissler, we have no idea why he wouldn’t want to. Seriously – JoBeth Williams is glorious, like a fine wine that improves with age. We also want Bostick to stick with his wife. Since Jessica is played by Rosamund Pike, again we have no idea why he would stay so focused on birding.

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The movie wants to be about priorities. It wants to be about abandoning youthful obsessions in favor of the pleasures of a more social, connected, life. We see that in the relationship between Stu and Brad. We see it in the relationship between Stu and Edith, and between Brad and Ellie (Rashida Jones). But it gives too much weight to the obsession, then has to do heavy handed things to drag us back.

Obviously, the cast is very male-dominated. Add to it Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, Steven Weber, and Tim Blake Nelson, and you might forget that it also stars the great Anjelica Huston!

I bring this up because I believe it is also part of why The Big Year was not a runaway smash success. There is no reason for a woman to go see this movie, except to be with her male spouse/life partner – and he’s probably expecting manic Jack Black and not the soul-searching, restrained Jack Black.

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Conclusion

There are worse ways to spend 100 minutes of your life, but considering how much star power is in the cast, I expected more.

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Posted in: Movies