(by Dustin Putman
No motion picture hinging upon the life passions of its three central characters should be anywhere near as lackadaisical and blasé as "The Big Year." A curiosity piece in that it isn't funny or dramatic but just kind of there, the film's premise of a bird-watching competition has been ruthlessly hidden from the trailers, which falsely suggest a slapstick version of 2007's "The Bucket List," instead. Heading into wide release with almost no commercial viability outside of the cast's star power, the grossly empty, dreary, underwritten finished product is destined to die a quick death upon release. Granted, how much money a movie makes has nothing to do with its quality, but every once in a while a true stinker comes along that one can just tell is doomed from the get-go. The rancid smell permeating over the proceedings is that of a carcass, all right, and not of the fowl persuasion, either. Article continues below
Director David Frankel has been on a winning streak with his last two pictures, 2006's razor-sharp but ultimately empathetic satire "The Devil Wears Prada" and 2008's beautifully heartbreaking "Marley & Me." Both of these films were notable for knowing exactly what they were, barely stepping wrong in telling their respective stories with an intelligence only equalled by their emotional resonance. The David Frankel who has now helmed "The Big Year" is so far removed from his former successes that he might as well be a different person with the same name. Even if the fault lies with screenwriter Howard Franklin (2001's "Antitrust") or, perhaps, even a botched, studio-ordered editing hatchet job (this is all just hearsay, mind you), it is still difficult to believe Frankel would involve himself in a project so weary, unfocused and apathetic.
The title refers to a birding competition where contestants aim to spot or hear as many different species of winged creatures as possible across North America in a single calendar year. In exchange for a major financial commitment and the dedication of one's time, the winner gets the satisfaction of being on top and his or her face plastered on the magazine cover of Birding. How do you prove how many species you've seen? Do you have to snap a photo of each bird? Not at all. The contest relies on the good, old-fashioned honor system. Right off the bat, whether true or not (the opening titles state with the wit of a lead foot, "Based on a true story. Only the facts have been changed."), the film has revealed itself to be about an asinine sort-of sport tantamount to one competitor announcing that he's won just because he says so. Couldn't anyone just come forward and say they've seen more birds than anyone else, even if they've been lounging around at home for the last twelve months? It makes less sense the more one stops to think about it, so it was imperative that the human story overcome this hurdle of a detail. Apparently no one involved got that particular memo.
Seemingly beginning in the middle of the first act, the film is off and running before adequately establishing its characters and why the viewer should care at all about them. What can be deemed is that 36-year-old nine-to-fiver Brad Harris (Jack Black), back home living with his parents following a divorce, convinces mom (Dianne Wiest) and pops (Brian Dennehy) to match the five thousand dollars he's managed to save so that he can travel around and compete in The Big Year. He's already got a handicap—he still has to return on occasion to put in hours at his job—but what he lacks in resources he hopes to make up for in gumption. Meanwhile, wealthy executive Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) is looking to retire and hopes that participating in the birding contest will give him the push he needs. Complete strangers at first who eventually befriend each other on the road, Brad and Stu have one road block in the way of winning: reigning champion Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), who is hoping to beat his old record of 732 birds sighted in a year.
Loosely adapted from the book "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession" by Mark Obmascik, "The Big Year" is unsuspectingly miserable, a relatively low-key affair that nevertheless manages to go wrong in every way while wasting a tip-top ensemble of actors in throwaway parts. Jack Black (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") is immensely affable on-screen even when he allows himself to go loose and unhinged, but all the better when he pulls in the excess energy and just gets to play a character. His Brad Harris would be a prime chance to do just that were it not for the role being so darn bland. Black has had a tough run in a slew of underperformers these last few years, and this is unfortunately not the project to turn that around. As Stu, Steve Martin (2009's "It's Complicated") inadvertently stirs up fond memories of 1987's hilarious, heartfelt "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," especially when he and Brad team up on a road trip as they head to their next destination. Director David Frankel does so little with this pairing that it might as well just be forgotten about.
As Kenny, Owen Wilson (2011's "Midnight in Paris") is an even larger question mark, treated as the antagonist and protagonist depending on what the meandering narrative demands. When he neglects his long-suffering wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike) for the last time, her ending of their relationship is the sole element that truly feels authentic. Supporting actors are squandered without fail. How dare a person cast greats like Dianne Wiest (2010's "Rabbit Hole"), Anjelica Huston (2011's "50/50"), JoBeth Williams (2007's "In the Land of Women"), Tim Blake Nelson (2005's "Syriana") and Jim Parsons (TV's "The Big Bang Theory"), and then do nothing with them? Playing bird-chirping female contestant Ellie, Rashida Jones (2010's "The Social Network") looks cheerfully confused, her romantic subplot with Jack Black as ineffectual as it is forgettable. Only Rosamund Pike (2009's "Surrogates") manages to make a good impression as Kenny's wife Jessica; it's a standard part, too, but Pike ekes out the one emotionally honest moment in the film.
"The Big Year" is bewilderingly vacuous, the moralizing of the final few scenes an afterthought in the face of ninety previous minutes of immature, lame-brained inconsequence. There are a few rare shots of driving and riding in airplanes, but as the months fly by as quickly as the whereabouts of its characters, one never gets the sense that any of the competitors are truly traveling from one end of the continent to the other. For Brad, his need to still work is a negligible plot point that is largely forgotten about. What it might be like to be in the middle of this cross-country race is lost as scenes arrive with barely any cohesion or sense. Most tragic of all is the birding at its center. What do Brad, Stu and Kenny love so much about it that they are willing to give up nearly everything for it? Is there more to their decisions than just the notoriety that it might bring them if they win? And how about the birds themselves? They're never treated as anything other than objectified means to an end. Birding is a legitimate enough hobby, one that a more thoughtful film would treat with the seriousness and nobility it warrants. As funny as Alzheimer's and as entertaining as catatonia, "The Big Year" is more pet peeve than pastime.