The Big Year (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Big Year (2011)

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Riddle me this - Paul Giamatti went on to great critical and award-winning acclaim in 2004 in Sideways by delivering an obvious, yet sweet, monologue comparing his life to wine.  In 2011, Jack Black does the same thing to his father in The Big Year, only substituting birds for the wine.  So, are the indie crowd and general film consumption groups so highbrow that one is automatically granted prestige because it's based on a more expensive beverage and has Giamatti?  Or, the case I fear is correct, are people once again afraid of letting comedians flex their acting muscles a bit and can't accept them in roles praising strange hobbies?

I'm caught between two worlds here and dislike the elitism at play.  Sideways is a very good film masquerading as a great film, and The Big Year is a very good film masquerading as a piece of silly entertainment.  One gets the awards, and the other is one of the less favorably reviewed movies of 2011.  If anything, the marketing for both films should be analyzed for a "how to" and a "God, no" approach to advertising.

My viewing of The Big Year is not going to go on my all-time list of cinema experiences, but it's a very sweet and more than ably put-together film which contains a large number of great performances and an gleeful overabundance of optimism.  For those of you who follow my reviews closely, this movie is my kind of crack.  It's not like Zookeeper where I like the film almost in spite of itself, or Cold Weather where one of the best films ever made is passed over by just about everyone.  The Big Year is just what it is, very tender, largely ignored, and completely misunderstood.

I like Jack Black a lot when he calms down, and gives the movie a bit of sweetness it might have been lacking in another comedian's hands.

The incorrect perception starts with the cast.  Try as I might to convince people Jack Black has the chops to hang with genuine dramatic heavyweights, too many people see him as the farting man parodied in Tropic Thunder.  Then there's Steve Martin, whose output has been enjoyably low key in the last decade, and Owen Wilson, who hasn't been able to capitalize on the dramatic promise of The Minus Man and The Royal Tenenbaums.  Basically, this film stars people who are largely misunderstood going into it.

The plot doesn't help much, encircling the three in a plot which involves "birding".  Birders circle the world searching for rare sightings of birds outside of their natural habitat, and any other species they encounter along the way which are existing where they should.  A "big year" is one where birders compete (as much as they can) to see who can spot the most birds.  The society of birders works on the honor system, preferring rare sightings be documented with photographs, but still trusting the word of their fellow bird enthusiasts.

Like I said, this kind of optimism is a drug to me, especially since this is a world so in love with birds their mere sighting can insight a media event.  I loved the fact the birders operated on the honor system in today's age, I liked that Wilson's rogue-ish (for the scope) birder is operating on the edge simply by jumping a fence to see a bird before someone, and it gave me a warm feeling inside when the characters realized being #1 isn't all that matters in this lifetime.  The Big Year is fueled by the idea we can all be better than what we are, and it's simplicity in storytelling is aided by the execution and style in suitably subtle ways.

Your mileage with the performers will vary, but any film where Anjelica Huston pulls a knife on Owen wilson is ok by me.

There's a lot to like about the tiny stylistic touches director David Frankel gives to The Big Year.  On a charming note, the British aside called-upon early in the film to explain what birding is to the audience, and why the previous record is so large.  But on a far sweeter note, the way he allows the camera to just sit back and appreciate the birds is lovely for the simple fact that he's willing to calm down and appreciate nature.

This sweetness and reality to life seeps into the screenplay, by Howard Franklin, in slightly unexpected fashions.  Because it's Jack Black and Owen Wilson, we've trained ourselves to expect some silliness.  But much like Steve Martin, when they're given material which treats them like adults instead of malleable plastic toys they really shine.  I was impressed with a lot of the writing in The Big Year, especially the way a late film evaporation of a romance is handled not with a a lot of jokes, but with the sad realization two people just aren't right for each other anymore and, perhaps, never were.

I was surprised by how much I liked The Big Year.  It's an adult, loving treatment of a hobby only the privileged can have, grounded in optimism and delivered with just the slightest dash of magical realism.  So I didn't love The Big Year, but I liked it an awful lot, and I felt damn good while I was watching it.

Happiness should be its own reward sometimes, and this is a good way to treat yourself with the fantasy.

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The Big Year (2011)

Directed by David Frankel.
Screenplay by Howard Franklin.
Starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin.

Posted by Andrew

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