October 15, 2011
Review - " The Big Year " - (in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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The Big Year
Directed by: David Frankel
Starring: Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Brian Dennehy,
Anjelica Huston, Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest,
Seeking to capture the fan/collectors/enthusiast gene, The Big Year
uses Mark Obmascik's book about obsessed "birders" and transforms
it into a genial if slow-moving, comedy. Steve Martin, Jack Black and
Owen Wilson play the central trio - each at different stages of lives
they put on hold to pursue their shared passion - in a contest to
eclipse what amounts to the home run record of bird watching.
Director David Frankel's pic delivers sweet and amusing moments.
One of the wives in the slight but affable comedy watches as her
husband Stu (Steve Martin) vies with his adult son for bragging rights
in a skiing contest. “They’re men, dear,” Edith (JoBeth Williams) says
to her daughter-in-law, sounding fond, resigned and also slightly
patronizing “If they ever stop competing, they die.”
Loosely inspired by Obmascik's chronicle of three men vying to top
each other during "the Big Year" competition, screenwriter Howard
Franklin loosely start with that template as a foundation to explore
what's really important - the ways people and their loved ones
accommodate activities that become all-consuming.
"You can't compare golf to this. Golf is like a hobby," explains Wilson's
Kenny Bostick to his frustrated wife (Rosamund Pike), later trying to
rationalize missed events and blown deadlines by saying, "This is what
I'm great at."
Indeed, Bostick holds the birder record, having sighted 732 North American birds in a single "big year," which beckons to his
two principal competitors: Stu Preissler (Martin), a rich businessman whose wife (JoBeth Williams) is more resigned to his
yearlong flight of fancy than are his harried subordinates, who keep pleading with him to put out fires at work; and Brad
Harris (Black), a divorced 36-year-old computer programmer who gets a mixed reaction to his obsession from his adoring,
supportive mom (Dianne Wiest) and gruff dad (Brian Dennehy).
Kenny is conniving and the moment he finds out
others are going for a big year, he gets in their
heads. As they dash from Texas to Alaska,
Minnesota to Key West, the guys raise their
scores, empty their bank accounts and question
what they’re doing.Given Kenny's ruthlessly
competitive nature, Stu and Brad (who doubles
as the narrator) strike up an unlikely friendship.
Mostly, though, the protagonists' paths intersect
fitfully as they crisscross the continent responding
to weather and seasonal patterns that will
theoretically help them pad their totals.
Beyond the leads, Frankel and company have
aided their cause immeasurably by casting the
movie to the hilt, with accomplished actors like
Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson, Anjelica
Huston and Jim Parsons in what amount to
minimal "there are worse ways to spend your TV
hiatus" roles. Pic also makes appropriate use of various avian-related songs, including "Surfin' Bird" as Brad's ringtone.
Director David Frankel is blessed with this cast and a subject that seems ripe for mockery, or at least gentle lampooning.
It’s not often that a mainstream movie focuses on an eccentric subset of the population without turning them into grotesques
or cute little goofballs. These birders have technology on their side — a blogger named Ichabod Crane (Big Bang Theory’s
Jim Parsons) keeps everyone up to date on the race and they get daily phone updates about obscure sightings. But there is
still a quixotic aspect to searching for something so elusive in vast and varied landscapes, and the movie captures
something of that. Frankel shows the birders fanning out across the rugged terrain of the avian paradise of Attu Island (with
the Yukon subbing for the Aleutian Island) on bicycles, and as they visually bag their prey, the names of various species
pop up all over the landscape, scrawled on the screen. It’s like an Easter egg hunt for adults, joyous and sweet.
The Big Year may be a little
slow paced in the comedy
department to those who have
seen Black, Wilson and Martin
in other films – but to birders
and outdoor lovers, it soars
high above the clouds. Who
knows? Maybe it will inspire
some to get out there and
experience something new. Go