I don’t know what I wanted when I decided to see this film; I don’t feel the need to rave about it, but at the same time I do think little has been said about a film that stars three fantastic comedians, one of whom can perhaps be credited as the patriarch and influence to recent generation of male comedic style in Hollywood, including his co-stars in this movie. Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson all steer this 2 hour relatively easy paced comedy following three birders embroiled in a race to spot as many breed of birds in the North America area, before the year is up.
Bird Watching? No. Birding – hell yes. This is the Big Year.
According to sources this is based on a book of the same name by Mark Obmascik. I don’t know anything about that, but what I can tell you is this: Brad Harris (Jack Black) is a middle-aged divorced man living with his parents (Martha Plimpton and Joaquin Pheonix’s mother in Parenthood and the Chief Alien man from Cocoon** – I know, I know – I’m sorry) and he’s obsessed with birds. When he’s in his cubicle at work he’s listening to bird calls, when he’s around others he can confidently identify a species by its bird call. He likes birds, and he’s on a mission to take part in the Big Year. A 365 day competition to document the most amount of birds in North America, a number that currently stands at a record-breaking 732.
Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is the, lightly put, villain of the movie – he is also the reigning champion of the Big Year and he’s loathed to let anyone steal his crown, it’s the only thing he is truly good at. Still listening? bear with me. Steve Martin rounds up the troika as Stu Preissler, a corporate CEO who wants to retire and live life, on the top of his Bucket List? Yep. The Big Year.
Bostick is on lock down when it becomes apparent to him that his title as Birding king isn’t safe. A legend among the bird aficionado’s and the resident A-hole to everyone else, Bostick makes it his mission to keep his eye on the prize whilst never taking the other off the competition – he’s always two steps ahead and he makes sure they know it. With all his time dedicated to traipsing around North America for a year his presence at home is sporadic at best, leaving his poor young wife Jessica (gorgeous Rosamund Pike) to renovate and start life in their new home. Only thing is, she also wants to start a family – but with Bosticks eyes everywhere else but on his wife its a sad turn of events when she begs him to make time for her and he makes more ludicrous excuses (even at one point pretending to be somewhere he isn’t when he’s actually at the place he should be…) to chase birds and keep himself ahead in the game. Though it’s not all gloom: man-child Mark is perhaps the most excited and thrilled to be embarking on what he believes is his calling. He, then, is probably Bostick’s most dangerous rival because Mark aspires to win prove to himself and his father that he can achieve and win. When he embarks on his expedition he is clearly happy to be there – using his ear to identify any rare bird by its call. There’s even the potential love interest in Elle (Rashida Jones)who, fittingly, can imitate any bird call.
When he meets and befriends Priessler, he at first holds back his Big Year ambitions (apparently it’s not customary for participants to reveal that they are participating in the competition) but in a moment of bromance and sheer excitement reveals all to his compadre. Priessler, a nice guy with a demeanor not usually offered to a character of titan qualities, isn’t quick to share that part of information. The film ambles through day’s, weeks and months in the year where they cross paths, spend time with loved ones before jetting off on the news of another bird sighting somewhere usually far off. One great scene sees them fly with other bird enthusiasts to the small isolated island of Attu. It’s an exciting expedition where a collective of rare birds are about to gather. At this point you remember that these guys like birds and you are watching a second grade nature film. It’s so beautifully shot when the film allows you to just see what they see.
Throw in a couple of snarky comebacks and arrogant humor from Wilson; slapstick and heart from Black; lovely dialogue and delivery courtesy of Martin and you forget what the film is supposed to represent. It tries but only scratches the surface of something that is clearly wants to be more deep than it actually is.Even the competition that is the running track for this film, is a little lacklustre when it essentially becomes about: two mediocre characters joining forces to out do the arrogant Big Year champion. Admittedly there are some really nice scenes between Martin and Black (it’s like a Padwon learning from his Jedi) and I will state it here – that Steve Martin has finally grown into his white hair – but really? a Steve Martin character would bring it – I get that he is old – but that didn’t stop Clint Eastwood from doing what he does best in Gr ; there is also the semi-sad story concerning Bostick’s blinding obsession with the Big Year and his abandoned wife – but it is all a bit superficial. There is the intermittent presence of a counter on-screen which pushes to remind us that there is a race going on which is a kooky gimmick and at first its great, it looks like something Wes Anderson would do, actually this film in some parts actually looks like something Wes Anderson would do, but again it’s not that deep. Each character has his own motive, story and personality to drive the film but it’s nothing to rant about. It’s a shame because these are three fantastic comedic actors, but they all pretty much play flat versions of characters they have played numerous times before and better.
All three have a ‘lesson’ to learn during the course of this film, it’s predictable but that is not a problem – rarely will you watch one of these films and expect a different conclusion. What you may want is an interesting chronicling of how they get to the obvious conclusions. For the most of it, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t hate it. I like these actors, I like how beautifully this film is shot, I like that there is a clear soppy themes of friendship, love and loneliness. It’s sad in a lot of places that could have been explored better, instead it deviates into a film about two guys teaming up to beat the arrogant pantomime villain.
definitely a one time watch, and if it came on BBC One whilst I was channel flicking I would probably keep it on in the background.
**I now know that this is Dianne Weist and Brian Dennehy. Two well know, respected thespians and I had to revert them to one film in their lives. I know. It’s ridiculous and stupid. You probably knew who I was talking about from those descriptions though !