The Big Year
A tragic thing happens to some of our favorite comedians. They cease being funny. The symptoms usually appear as they begin to age. Often, it becomes noticeably more apparent when they first become parents and censorship actually starts to sound like a good idea. They take watered down roles in sickly-sweet family movies or they start doing voiceovers for crappy, Pixar rip-offs. But before Eddie Murphy was talking to animals, sporting a fat suit, or lending his voice to an obnoxious donkey, Steve Martin was already on the downward spiral towards lameness, blasé humor, and a trite film career.
Don’t get me wrong; I think Martin is a cool guy. He’s a talented musician, a novelist, and when he’s not trying to appeal to a clueless demographic, he makes decent movies (Shopgirl and Novocaine). Many will argue that The Jerk is classic comedic gold. His character, Navin Johnson, was ranked #66 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. But if you really think about it, does something like The Jerk make up for all The Father of the Bride, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Pink Panther flicks out there (All of which have sequels. Why, Steve, why?)? Martin’s role as Inspector Clouseau alone is reason enough for ex-communication. He should know better. This is the man who, in the middle of his stand-up set, would run to the bathroom, mic in hand, and bust in on some poor schlub. This is Steven Martin, wild and crazy guy. And he’s making PG rated movies? What?
The Big Year is about birdwatchers - I’m sorry, birders - which may very well be the most mundane subject in the world. More specifically, it’s about “The Big Year,” an achievement some birders only dream about: spending a whole year traversing the country trying to spot as many native birds as possible. Don’t even try to understand what compels someone to drop everything - their job, their loved ones, I mean everything - in order to chase down various fowl. Think instead about the pragmatic aspects of “The Big Year.” A birder only needs to hear a bird’s call to check it off the list. No photographs required. Which prompts one to wonder: Why not just lie? Because you’d be lying to yourself, and if The Big Year is about anything it’s about being true to yourself. Oh, and chasing down your dreams, of course.
The movie follows three impossible-to-fault guys. Martin plays Stu Preissler, an extremely wealthy man who just can’t wait to give it all up, retire, and spend more time with his family. That is not before leaving his wife, son, daughter-in-law and their expectant child to traipse across the States for a year. A paradigm of consideration. Jack Black is Brad Harris, the narrator and a token man-child. He is recently divorced, broke, and working a job that the audience is supposed to believe is demoralizing. I don’t know. Last time I checked, helping to maintain a nuclear facility was a pretty big responsibility. But what Brad is really good at is recognizing bird songs. I guess you could say it’s his calling. Lastly, Owen Wilson is Bostick, the bird-watching Michael Jordan, referred to by his peers with a mixture of admiration and disgust. Bostick holds the world record for most birds spotted during a “Big Year.” A real giant among men. Together these three go out of their way to thwart each other’s efforts at breaking the record. That’s about it. Except to say by the end of the movie lessons are learned, friendships are formed and love is found. Nice and predictable. Harmless really.
I feel like I can say, with confidence, that The Big Year is the most neutered movie I’ve ever seen. This is not an exaggeration. It’s actually kind of strange. The movie sets up problems and obstacles that could easily be cashed in for valid emotional reactions. Bostick, due to the demands of being the top birder, is constantly away from home. His wife (Rosamund Pike) - his third or fourth I believe - is trying to conceive but with a husband always on the road, it makes things a bit difficult. So when a hunky contractor shows concern, naturally we expect her to start an affair.
Nope. In the world of The Big Year needs, desires and dreams, why, those are privileges only birders are allowed to have. And apparently people don’t die either. When Brad finally gets the chance to go bird watching with his erstwhile grumpy father, he runs off leaving his wheezing old dad (Brian Dennehy) alone in the snowy wood. This is it, we think, the painfully clear moment when Brad realizes the consequences of his obsession. Again, nope. Dear old dad is just admiring an owl. Preissler’s life alone is devoid of these diffused plot complications, which suggests money really can buy anything, including boredom.
The Big Year has plenty of beaks but no teeth. It’s not really a feel-good movie, more of a numb, predictable sensation, like brushing your teeth: You do it everyday and you have to, but that doesn’t make it interesting, and it especially doesn’t mean someone should make a movie about it. Sure there were some scenes that elicited a chuckle, but I can’t remember which they were. There are times when the movie looks like its about to burst out of its stultified existence. Several times, Brad and Preissler mention that Bostick might have forged his record breaking number, suggesting that being human isn’t all paisley fedoras and pink-footed geese. But The Big Year is too busy extolling one-dimensional, largely untrue aphorisms about life and aging, to concern itself with anything of real import. It’s almost as if The Big Year is trying to be lame and irrelevant.
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