Grae Drake is currently off exploring faraway lands. Reviewing this week's releases in her place is William Bibbiani, CraveOnline's senior film critic and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast.
It takes hundreds, sometimes thousands of people to make a single motion picture. Sometimes, however, you get the impression that they’re not all making the same film. With The Big Year, I suspect that screenwriter Howard Franklin wanted to make a semi-meaningful comedy about lifelong obsessions conflicting with personal responsibilities, and that director David Frankel, apparently, wanted to make something generic and dull. Unfortunately for all of us, Frankel won the cage match. The Big Year is a lame duck.
Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson star as bird-watching enthusiasts who are competing to have what they call “a big year.” It’s a competition, based entirely on the honor system, to spy firsthand the largest number of avian species in a 365-day period. If that sounds exciting to you, then congratulations! Your standards are lower than mine. You’ll probably have a great time watching three comedic titans chat amiably and look off-screen at nature footage shot separately by a second unit crew.
But the bird watching is just an empty vessel for The Big Year’s obvious point: that personal obsessions only get in the way of what is best in life. No, not to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women… it’s your family, doofus. As Hollywood has reminded us over and over again for a hundred years, personal success comes at the expense of your loved ones and a sense of personal fulfillment. It’s a pretty weak argument coming from billionaires who produce demeaning morality plays that exist to brainwash poor and middle class families into accepting their blue-collar fates. “Well,” said the sewage worker barely feeding his family of six. “At least I’m not successful. Thanks, The Big Year! Eat your spam, sweetheart.”
I’d be more forgiving if The Big Year were more interesting, or even more eventful. There’s an alternate universe version of this movie that stars Ben Stiller, Robin Williams and Sacha Baron Cohen as they zip across the country getting drenched in bird poopie and sabotaging each other’s go karts. That movie probably sucks too, but at least it’s lively. David Frankel’s version is so generic that you’d probably forget to invite it to your birthday party. It’s anything but unpleasant, but that’s actually the problem.
Astute viewers will find hidden beneath the blasé façade of The Big Year a different, better film. A film that understands that its protagonists are obsessed bird watching maniacs who are willing, if ultimately unable, to sacrifice their friends, family and occupations in order to achieve the tiniest sliver of celebrity in a highly specialized field. The kind of people who take legitimate offense at the term “bird watchers,” because “birders” is clearly the more respectable term. If you’ve ever been sneered at because you accidentally called a “Trekker” a “Trekkie” (or vice-versa), then you know the type.
Franklin’s script, based on the non-fiction book by Mark Obmascik, tells the story of those characters. Frankel’s film tells the story of a bunch of guys with a time-consuming hobby. See the problem? Let’s put it this way: Would you rather watch a movie about guy obsessed with becoming the President of the United States, or a guy who would simply like to have the job? The Big Year’s lack of interest in its own subject matter makes for minimal involvement and lackadaisical suspense, since the need to see these cuckoos – and the birds they’re trying to find – is hard to comprehend. In short? You might not hate The Big Year… but you won’t give a hoot about it either.