While there are worse things in life than simply being pleasant (see my adoration for the critically derided Monte Carlo earlier this year for a perfect example of pleasant done well), there are times when a film is just so darn pleasant that it becomes a bit of a let down. The almost aggressively low key bird watching comedy The Big Yeardoesn’t have many things wrong with it, but it has few big laughs, simple drama, and little staying power in the mind of the viewer. It’s the kind of movie that the slang term “aiight” was made for.
Jack Black stars as Brad, a 36 year old who has quit on pretty much everything in his life (university, his marriage, most of his jobs). Brad has the unique ability to discern every species of bird simply by hearing a few simple chirps. He parlays this gift into chasing the birding equivalent of a championship called a Big Year, an honours system based competition that awards the person who can spot the highest number of bird species in a given year.
Brad’s closest competitors are a sympathetic business tycoon named Stu (Steve Martin), and birding world record holder Kenny (Owen Wilson). While Stu and Brad form a genial personal alliance, their professional goals make their feelings for each other a bit uneasy. Both of them, however, have to contend with the gleefully deceptive Kenny who will impulsively leave his increasingly frustrated wife (Rosamund Pike) at the drop of a hat to flee to a far off location in hopes of maintaining his record in what is sure to be a banner year for birders.
Black and Martin carry this material about as far as it can possibly go, and their performances are the film’s biggest assets. Stu is a character that has a full and satisfying arc, which makes Martin’s job pretty much done for him ahead of time, but it also gives him a chance to put his own spin on some pretty bland material. Black, on the other hand, gets to show that he can do a bit more than some terribly choreographed pratfalls. Brad has some decidedly dramatic moments with his parents (Brian Dennehy and Dianne Wiest) and a sweet, if underdeveloped, romantic subplot with a fellow birder (Rashida Jones).
Wilson unfortunately gets the short end of the stick not because his performance is bad, but because director David Frankel (Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada) and writer Howard Franklin (Antitrust, The Man Who Knew Too Little) have no idea what to make of Kenny as a character. While Stu and Brad will be dishonest to each other in slight ways, Kenny is truly a shithead who would gleefully lie to anyone and everyone to make sure his record stays intact. Kenny also very clearly has no regard for anyone other than himself, and the things he puts his wife through are abhorrent. That’s fine for any big screen villain, but Frankel and Franklin are constantly trying to build unwarranted sympathy for a character that doesn’t deserve any. It’s almost as if they decided at the last second that their film absolutely couldn’t have a villain, but they couldn’t find a way to change the structure of the film. The fact that it’s very loosely based on a nonfiction book by Mark Obmascik makes it feel almost as if the filmmakers were afraid of some sort of litigation. Wilson is a talented guy, but he can only do so much.
The film does get a few things right thanks to a great dynamic between the leads, but it’s the kind of film that feels like not everyone was at the same place at the same time. There are lots of telephone conversations and clusters of scenes where people talk about someone who isn’t there. It’s a bit distracting, but when you take into account the high demand nature of the three leads and cameos by everyone from Angelica Houston to Joel McHale, it seems like an almost necessary evil. After all, a film about bird watching isn’t going to exactly sell itself.
Overall, The Big Year is passable, but I doubt a better adjective can be found to describe it. It’s got problems, but the tone of the film is so slight that the problems don’t amount to much. Given the leads, one might expect something more substantial than this, but it serves its very baseline goals of being an adequate time waster.
Cast: Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, Jack Black
Directed by: David Frankel
Top image: A scene from The Big Year. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.