Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Kevin Pollak, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson
Howard Franklin, Mark Obmascik (Novel)
Fox 2000 Pictures
Despite a trio of Hollywood heavyweights, The Big Year has quietly entered theatres on its opening weekend on a surprisingly slight 2,100 screens and with a noticeably weak marketing push from distrib Fox 2000 Pictures.
The film stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black as competing birders targeting an annual award for seeing the most species. They each have their own individual reasons for competing, but their year-long adventures will take them all across North America and through a wide variety of mishaps along the way.
Perhaps recognizing that marketing a film as a "birding" film would likely kill interest, even with this cast, Fox 2000's marketing has taken a dramatically different angle in stressing the film's cast and the physical hijinks that will occur along the way. Unfortunately, by detouring away from the actual story it would appear that Fox has really failed to capture the fullness of a film that is quite a bit better than the trailer would make you think.
All three actors play their usual stock characters here, yet they do so without ever phoning in their performances. Owen Wilson is Kenny Bostick, the arrogant returning champion who's not above doing whatever it takes to win once again. Jack Black is Brad Harris, a likable guy yet bumbling loser.
In other words, he's Jack Black playing Jack Black's usual character.
The same goes for Steve Martin as Stu Preissler, a CEO whose laid back earnestness is pretty much the same routine that Martin has been bringing to the big screen for a few years now.
The roles are predictable and, for the most part, Howard Franklin's script based upon a book by Mark Obmascik's book is a paint-by-numbers comedy with equal parts heart and humor. Despite the film's predictable and methodical nature, The Big Year is for the most part filled with gentle, easygoing laughs that may not split your sides but will likely have you leaving the theatre with a smile on your face.
Despite the tremendous resources that everyone involved seems to pour into their birding and into this annual competition, there's prize money involved and, at least as far as was shared here, no particularly strict rules to follow. The actual "count" of birds is for the most part an "honor system" count with the competition itself a mostly low-key affair.
Unlike most comedies of this nature and most comedies involving this cast, The Big Year never really goes over the top nor does it ever soar for any dramatic heights. You can't help but wonder if these actors didn't just want an excuse to work with one another for awhile, because it's pretty clear from early in the film that we're in for a breezy, easygoing yet almost instantly forgettable experience.
The Big Year has actually received quite a bit of support from The Audubon Society, perhaps a recognition that the film actually does take its birding seriously. The film does also seem to have a little to say about the lengths to which these guys will go for success, with jobs, marriages and families all sitting on the back burner while dreams are chased.
Jack Black tones down his usual shtick dramatically, mostly deferring to his more relaxed School of Rock persona that weaves together sincerity, sweetness and that lovable loser thing. Owen Wilson could play charming yet arrogant in his sleep, but to his credit his performance here is energetic and appealing. Martin's performance could have easily been the weakest of the bunch given its low-key nature, but Martin projects a warmth here that goes nicely with the material.
There are a host of bit players and cameos including such folks as Angelica Huston, Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy, Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike and others. Lawrence Sher's camera work offers the film a vibrancy and beauty not often found in this type of comedy while giving it a bit of a retro feel that serves as a nice companion to the film's thread of humanity and warmth.
With light marketing and a subject matter that may very well turn off potential moviegoers, The Big Year is likely to be the odd film out on its opening weekend. A quick run through theatres will likely give way to a much more successful live on home video where those with a mild curiosity will feel more free to check it out in the comfort of their own homes.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic