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Big Year, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Like bird-watching, pleasant, if only occasionally exciting."
4 stars

What a curious thing "The Big Year" is in this day and age - a movie made for a broad adult audience that is nevertheless so tame that the MPAA rated it PG. Throw in a couple of stars often known for wackier work and I suspect that its brief stay in theaters is due at least in part to audiences just not knowing what to make of it. Sure, even in retrospect, it's unlikely to be seen as a forgotten classic, but it's nice in more than one sense of the word, and that's a surprisingly rare commodity.

The film takes place among "birders", avian enthusiasts who often travel great distances to observe different species, with Brad Harris (Jack Black) as our narrator. Brad's got an unusual gift for identifying birds by their call, and he's planning his first "Big Year", where he'll attempt to see and identify as many different types of bird as possible within a calendar year. The current record of 735 is held by Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), who initially says he only intends to set the pace and see if anybody will come close to his record, though his wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike) knows better. Another man trying for the Big Year is Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), an executive whose attempts to retire from the company he founded are continually being interrupted by the merger that needs his personal input.

At times, it seems as though director David Frankel and screenwriter Howard Franklin had planned to go with a somewhat zany take on Mark Obmascik's book. The opening features an animated history lesson narrated by John Cleese, a series of snappy cuts and contrasts that emphasize the nerdy nature of the characters' hobby, and the on-screen counters that pop up with their totals emphasize the competitive aspect. There are comedic moments throughout the movie, and while the majority work, there are a few lazy ones in there, and the movie seldom seems to go for the really big laugh, settling instead for chuckles.

The openly wacky stuff soon falls by the wayside - it's hard to develop a story about the characters while mocking the thing they love, and the filmmakers decide that they want the audience to like Brad as opposed to think of him as a loser. Instead, they opt for a relatively friendly look at these three men, with even Bostick not exactly portrayed as a scoundrel. There's a lot of scenes covering what makes it a big year for these guys outside of the birds, and while it's in no case particularly melodramatic, it's a sincere look at important steps forward, back, or perhaps sideways in the lives of the characters.

The cast handles that well, too; better than expected, in some cases. Jack Black, for instance, has more than a touch of his usual manic persona when narrating, but the obnoxious elements of it are absent; we can see that Brad needs to get his life together but don't want him to change too much. He's a surprisingly good pairing with Steve Martin, whose Stu is polished and smooth in all the places where Brad is unfinished. It's a part that could have been bland, but Martin is able to make Stu's calm and experience very appealing even while showing him discover new things about himself. Owen Wilson is paired less with them than Rosamund Pike (even if it's often phone conversations), and he resists making Bostick the outright villain the other characters often see him as ; he's a guy dominated by his competitive urges to a tragic (but understatedly so) extent. And Pike is just the most noticeable part of a ridiculously deep and uniformly good supporting cast; she's joined by Rashida Jones, Brian Dennehy, JoBeth Williams, Dianne Wiest, and Kevin Pollack in the reasonably substantial parts, with the movie also having Anjelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, Anthony Anderson, Jim Parsons, Steven Weber and others on hand for quick, amusing scenes.

Surprisingly, the movie doesn't feel at all crowded despite that; Frankel keeps the focus on the leads and lets the rest come and go as it makes sense. It's a nice-looking movie, too, with Frankel and cinematographer Lawrence Sher reminding us that the birds and their environs are sort of amazing when they choose their moments to pull back from the competitive aspects of birding, doing this just often enough to make a point.

Because of this, my late grandfather probably would have said that there weren't enough birds in the movie; it's not "Winged Migration". But I think he would have liked it anyway; it's slight and completely lacking in edge, but pleasant. There is a nagging sense that this cast really should have made something funnier, but that's not what it's going for.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21722&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/01/11 11:57:42
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User Comments

3/15/12 Dr.Lao One subplot is terribly contrived, but overall a delightful movie 4 stars
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  14-Oct-2011 (PG)
  DVD: 31-Jan-2012


  DVD: 31-Jan-2012

Directed by
  David Frankel

Written by
  Howard Franklin

  Steve Martin
  Jack Black
  Owen Wilson

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