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"THE BIG YEAR"
(2011) (Steve Martin, Owen Wilson) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: Risking work commitments and personal relationships, three men compete to view and catalog the most species of birds in a calendar year.
PLOT:
The story follows three competing bird watchers who have each committed to a "Big Year," in which they try and spot and catalog as many rare bird sightings as possible. Stu (STEVE MARTIN) is a business executive who has always wanted to pursue a Big Year as a passion project. Brad (JACK BLACK) is a thirty-something divorcee who finds himself wandering in life, but knows every bird call and wants to break the world record for bird sightings in one year. Bostick (OWEN WILSON) is the cocky current world-record holder who wants to retain his legacy at all costs.

Stu has the support of his wife, Edith (JOBETH WILLIAMS). Brad, meanwhile, has the support of his travel-agent mother, Brenda (DIANNE WIEST), but not his retired father, Raymond (BRIAN DENNEHY), who thinks his son has no direction or real ambition in life. Bostick, meanwhile, has already had one marriage fail due to his globe-trekking Big Year pursuits. His current wife, Jessica (ROSAMUND PIKE), wants only for him to stay home so they can start a family. She has even begun fertility treatments, but Bostick proves time and again that he is willing to leave her the second he hears of a rare bird sighting.

It soon becomes a three-way race for the world record. Brad briefly strikes up a flirtation with Ellie (RASHIDA JONES), who shares his passion for bird watching and bird calls. Stu, meanwhile, has to deal with his fellow executives Barry and Jim (JOEL McHALE and KEVIN POLLAK) who can't close a major acquisition without him. Stu puts pressure on both with his single-minded pursuit of a new world record even as his marriage falls apart.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
The new comedy, "The Big Year," is one of those flicks that my grandma used to call a "nice movie." It's a nice movie essentially about nice people doing nice things. It's almost too nice. Did you ever have a girl or a boy break up with you because you were "too nice." Yeah, that was always a head-scratcher. Of course, in some instances, "nice" is just another word for "bland" or "unexciting." That's kind of how I feel about "The Big Year."

This is not a bad movie, folks. In fact, if you are tired of the recent spate of big-screen comedies that only find humor in raunch and filth, this may serve as a tonic. It's definitely for grown-ups. I mean, when you have Jack Black in your film and he laments that he's "36 and divorced," you know you've graduated from the realm of "Ska-doosh!" and air-guitar licks.

Black stars as Brad, a thirty-something cubicle dweller who has fallen in love with all things birds, so much so that he has maxed out multiple credit cards going on trip after trip to spot rare woodpeckers, owls, and so forth. He befriends Stu (Steve Martin), a corporate executive who is tired of the big-business rat race and who also has a passion for exotic fowl. They have a friendly rivalry with Bostick (Owen Wilson), who holds the world record for spotting the most species of bird in a single calendar year.

That's the "Big Year" of the film's title, a real-life competition in which people with plenty of disposable income travel to locales on a moment's notice whenever they hear of an unusual or uncommon species that has decided to land on a branch or a rock or a beach and wait for them to be spotted and photographed. The competition is fierce. So much so that the competitors don't even like to tell each other they are "on a Big Year" even though it's clear who is in it for the records and who is not.

With such a premise, I was waiting for the film to cut loose and show the audience the eccentricities of these people. It's a nutty way to spend a year, jetting to remote Alaskan islands, setting up tripods in garbage dumps, hunkering down for long hours in the woods and making silly sounds with one's lips in hopes that they'll be able to spot a prized hummingbird or eagle for a few seconds. I can only imagine what Christopher Guest and the rest of the folks behind flicks like "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind" would have done with such a story. Ditto Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne.

But with director David Franklin and screenwriter Howard Frankel, they're only willing to go so far with the concept and the characters. They almost..."like" them too much. Bostick plays a few dirty tricks to get an advantage in certain instances. But he never does anything particularly outlandish or over the top to protect his record. Brad maxes out his credit cards and lives with his parents (Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy). But he's essentially a sweet guy who you end up rooting the most for. Stu, meanwhile, doesn't have that manic pull you would think a man who has been shackled by the corporate world for four decades would have. He doesn't have that sense of "I NEED to do this!" driving him. Martin plays him so...well, "nice" and close to the vest.

And there really wasn't much done with any of the minor, side characters to add flavoring to the piece. Everyone is pretty much in the film to surround the main three characters either as enablers or applauders or hen-peckers who point out (perhaps rightfully) that spending an entire year traversing the country and taking pictures of birds is perhaps not the best use of one's time and resources. The film never really takes sides on whether this lifestyle is a good one or bad one, although Bostick pays the highest price with multiple marriages failing.

That said, it's not a particularly bad movie. It wants to be liked. And I did at least "like" it. The location work holds your attention more than anything (the film was shot mostly in British Columbia, which doubled for many locations around the U.S.) And it was nice to see some old favorites among the supporting roles, chiefly Wiest and Dennehy, JoBeth Williams as Martin's supportive wife, and Anjelica Huston as a boat captain who doesn't care for Bostick.

"The Big Year" is a small movie with small charms. But for those tired of the rampant big-screen potty humor, you could do worse. I give it a 5.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed October 11, 2011 / Posted October 14, 2011


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