DIR: David Frankel • WRI: Howard Franklin • PRO: Curtis Hanson, Stuart Cornfeld, Ben Stiller •
ED: Mark Livolsi • DOP: Lawrence Sher • DES: Brent Thomas • CAST: Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, Anjelica Huston, Kevin Pollak
Films on niche topics are inherently difficult. Typically, it’s a case of either barraging the viewer with information on the topic and hoping they’ll find their way or they keep the facts to a minimum; only giving enough to service the story and forward the plot. It’s not a case of the topic being technical, or even interesting – it’s a case of making it relevant for the story. With The Big Year, the topic is birdwatching – or, to use the correct term, “birding”. The story follows three men who are attempting to document the largest collection of birds in a single year – known as a ‘Big Year’. Owen Wilson plays the reigning champion who has held the title, Steve Martin and Jack Black both attempting to topple him and take it for themselves. The story itself is basic, and for the most part, riven with clichés. With a niche topic, it usually works better if it acts as a side-note. In other words, the focus is on their obsession – it could be anything from stamp collecting to scientific endeavours. Here, unfortunately, the topic of ‘birding’ is pretty much front and centre. If you’ve little or no interest in nature and outdoor pursuits, this film doesn’t really help to persuade from your indifference. Indeed, it almost seems to scorn you for not doing so.
The three men traverse America and form friendships along the way. Steve Martin is an executive-type who is beginning his retirement, but is continually harassed by his underlings who need his guidance. Jack Black is a computer technician who’s harboured an ambition to compete in the Big Year, but for lack of funds has been unable to do so. Owen Wilson is a twice-married man whose current wife is attempting IVF, all while he is travelling in defence of his title. Throughout the film, however, it becomes immediately apparent that the actors didn’t sign on based upon the power and quality of the script, but rather the opportunity to work together. The dialogue is so clunky that it comes across as insincere. Overall, the screenplay looks like it could have potential. The competition is ultimately self-destructive for all involved and forces each man to face a hard reality in themselves and deal with it. The topic itself may seem absolutely bizarre, but the idea of an obsession ruling their lives to the point that they forgo career, family and normality is interesting. Here, however, it just comes across as mindlessly selfish. It doesn’t even bother to attempt to convey why it is they are driven to do what they do. It simply expects you to understand – you either get it or you don’t.
The direction and photography are quite decent, especially in the close-ups of the birds and in capturing the vividness of their plumage. One particular scene in a snowy wood is shot beautifully, and without the ham-fisted script, could have been something terrific. Instead, it’s a lost opportunity – like so many others in the film. The comedy, what little of it there is, is very much PG and safe. Steve Martin is capable of far better than this and it’s surprising that he didn’t exercise some sort of common sense and steer clear of this. Jack Black and Owen Wilson, on the other hand, have churned out enough schlock-fests like this to know better, but still continue to do so. It doesn’t push boundaries; it doesn’t break taboos and is completely safe for all tastes. Which is what makes this film particularly boring.
Rated PG (see IFCO website for details)
The Big Year is released on 2nd December 2011