"Birding comedy" is not a phrase you hear all that often. In fact, "The Big Year" may be one of a kind.
Here's a blurb for the new film, out this week on DVD: "It's the best birding comedy of all time!" Unfortunately, that doesn't mean much.
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"The Big Year" is about three very different men all struggling to juggle their personal lives with their love for birding ... or bird watching for the uninitiated. A character corrects another when he says "bird watching" at one point, but I couldn't figure out what the difference was. All three men are setting out to have a "big year," which means they aim to see as many different species of birds as they can in one year to become the "greatest birder of all time."
As two men with accents say early in the film, "Only Americans can turn birding into a competition." Owen Wilson then proceeds to flip them his own bird. I actually laughed at that one.
Brad Harris (Jack Black) is a 36-year-old man who lives with his parents and hates his job. Stu (Steve Martin) is a rich businessman who just wants to retire, but his underlings seem lost without him. And finally there is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) who holds the big year record of 732 birds and now returns to defend his title. Bostick struggles to keep his marriage alive while he constantly chooses the birds over his pregnant wife.
"The Big Year" is pleasant enough. There's not much to hate here, but there's definitely a lot to dislike. A film with Black, Martin and Wilson should have been much, much better - and funnier. Instead of seeing the peculiarity in the concept of bird watching, the film dusts over it and never delves too much into why people love it or why others can't understand it.
There's a sentimental scene where Brad tries to tell his father why some ... uh ... grey bird ... is his favorite, and we sense why he feels so much love for them. Other than that we get nothing. Stu has apparently wanted to do a big year since he was a kid, but we never know too much about why. There's a scene where Stu and Brad have dinner, but we hear almost nothing they say save some narration by Black's character (which should have been cut entirely. It's lazy writing).
Brad and Stu seem to be the focus point of the film. They form a friendship and team up against Bostick. This relationship is also where the film fails and never lives up to its talented trio of stars. In fact, the film fails at just about all of its relationships. We should have gotten a sense of why Brad and Stu are drawn together. Sure. We know that Stu is looking for a father figure and ends up with a friend, and Stu admires that Brad is young and passionate, but the script needed to flesh such details out more instead of completely relying on the talents of Martin and Black.
And then there's Bostick. Wilson really gets the short end of the stick here. His character is consumed with winning, but that thought doesn't include the participation of his wife or unborn daughter. We also don't get a sense of why he loves birding so much. Black's character gets a love interest (Rashida Jones), but their courtship is given almost no screen time and then becomes too big of a plot point for the movie near the end.
"The Big Year" had a lot to work with: a talented cast, an original story, a quirky premise and a chance to dive into human interactions and relationships for the sake of our laughter and sympathy. But, the movie skips over all that and aims to tell a much simpler story. The movie should've gone into "Bucket List" territory, but it decides to play it safe and just show our characters having a few good laughs here and there, running around seeing birds to the soundtrack of recent hits and an occasional emotional moment that usually hits a false note.
The DVD offers no special feature except for a couple of trailers and a slightly extended version of the film.
But, alas, "The Big Year" is not a terrible film. It's a nice enough 90-minute watch for you and a loved one or the whole family. Everyone in the cast is likable and there seem to be no negative motives for making the film. It's well directed by David Frankel and script has no animosity or irony when it comes to its central hobby of bird watching...excuse me...birding.
The film presents itself as a nice alternative for a couple or the family to watch in place of the mindless drivel thrown out by Hollywood. "The Big Year" never rises above its own mediocrity, but it also never falls into the category of complete disaster. Let's just hope its three leads have some much better work to offer soon, maybe even some more "birding comedies" (I got it right that time!).