The Big Year Dir. David Frankel

[Twentieth Century Fox; 2011]

Styles: comedy
Others: Marley & Me, Cheaper by the Dozen, Gulliver’s Travels, Hall Pass

Does Jack Black ever get tired, either while reading scripts he’s been offered or shooting the products of them, of falling all over the place or turning around too quickly and smacking his face on something metal? Does Steve Martin ever question the necessity of yet again projecting heartwarming benevolence through a veneer of haughty, and extreme, wealth? Isn’t it tacitly understood that deep down Owen Wilson would rather be Wes Anderson’s writing partner than a major movie star known for broad comedy hackwork?

These are the big questions relevant to The Big Year, a movie about three guys from different socio-economic strata (despite all being white and white-collar) who share a love of birds. All three stars are very talented at one thing or another, though none of it is evident in this movie. Black has Tenacious D and was good in Margot at the Wedding and King Kong. Martin was once a respected stand-up, writes novels, and has a world-famous collection of paintings. And Owen Wilson came up with Wes Anderson, one of the brightest lights in modern American film, and co-wrote Anderson’s first three movies (in addition to acting in two of them). So why do they do this stuff? Do they need money? Is there no less-visibly-embarrassing way to get it? Have they been in Hollywood so long that they literally can’t tell real emotion from canned, and so mistake the machinations of a movie like this for sincerity? Do they just like being on film sets, living out of hotels and trailers, saying lines, and spending per diems?

Black, Martin, and Wilson star as fanatical birdists — a term that actually exists, and is kind of an amateur mix between ornithologist and bird watcher — competing in The Big Year, a 12-month long match to see who on earth can locate the most different species of bird. Stu (Martin) is the CEO of a very big company that’s named after him; so presumably, he’s either a billionaire or at least has a fortune in the hundreds of millions. Kenny (Wilson) is a successful contractor with a nice, roomy house in the suburbs (of Newark, as far as I could tell). And Brad (Black) is a computer programmer with a shabby but entirely livable apartment. Their economic backgrounds are important because in order to win, each of them must be able to fly, at a moment’s notice, to wherever a rare bird has been spotted. This is how the movie justifies skipping from North American location to North American location as if its location scout had been itching for extra credit(s). But it’s not only about the locations: if this movie is saying anything — beyond some tripe it doesn’t really believe in, about sticking with your woman — then what the three leads do for a living, and how much they make at it, is of central importance.

In a better world (or maybe if it had been made in the 1970s), The Big Year would be a movie about the ability of personal passion to transcend the ever-expanding class discrepancies in America. Wilson’s character is the most middle-class of the three leads (he’d answer to an upper-middle class description, while Black’s Brad would occupy a spot somewhat lower on the social scale, with Martin’s Stu towering above, with the rest of the titans of industry) and is the defending world-champion birder. He set the bird-sighting record that Brad and Stu are trying to beat: Brad by maxing out his mom’s credit cards; Stu by having his corporate jet land him wherever he likes, because he often has to retreat to New York for business meetings. Both make birding work despite being strained by finances and time, yet neither is as perfectly suited to becoming the world’s best birder as Kenny. Unlike Brad, Kenny has plenty of money to get around, but unlike Stu, he can get around whenever he likes, because he isn’t accountable to a high pressure job. It would have been a prescient move on the movie’s part to make Kenny’s upper-middle-class freedoms the reason that he’s become the envy of birdists the world over.

So the best aspect, by far, of The Big Year is the fact that it takes the time — at least some of the time — to delineate the monetary necessities of its subjects. But the economic troubles are at best a vague undercurrent to the main action, which involves a lot of Black smacking his head on things, a lot of Martin pretending to be the down-to-earth rich guy, and a lot of Wilson autopiloting through underwritten comic lines. Its candy-colored photography and by-the-numbers resolve to wrap up every issue just as expected are in fact depressing, when you consider the better movie that these three talented performers might have made.

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