' ' Cinema Romantico: The Big Year

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Big Year

In last year's ostensible comedy centering around a mammoth event entitled A Big Year in which birders race from one end of the United States to the other to glimpse sightings of rare birds and add them all up to see who has seen the most, the father of one our three protagonists suffers a heart attack and for the rest of the movie is forced to carry an oxygen tank. I have an Uncle who lives in Oregon and who is an avid birder. He, too, on account of a health issue is forced to carry an oxygen tank. Yet once my Dad relayed a story in which my Uncle had gone out birding anyway with his oxygen tank in tow. And that, like many, many things, makes me so effing proud to be a Prigge. Even when I'm carrying my own oxygen tank, by God, I'm carrying it to the latest Kylie Minogue show and busting a wobbly, pathetic move (never mind that Kylie is actually 9 years older than me and will probably have her own oxygen tank). A Prigge's passion will not be deterred!!!

The Big Year is a real thing and it was chronicled in a book by Mark Obmascik, although as the film's opening title card explains "This Is A True Story - Only The Facts Have Been Changed." The film revolves around the Big Year of three men played by three dependables: Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), Brad Harris (Jack Black) and Stu Prescott (Steve Martin). Kenny is the reigning Big Year champion having gotten a look at 732 birds, a record thought to be unapproachable though both Brad and Stu think very much that they can approach it. And, hey! Guess what! They do!

All three men are portrayed as being hell-bent on seeing as many birds as possible, of course, but bubbling just below the surface in each one of them - in ways occasionally cultivated by the screenplay, but mostly by the actors themselves - is a devout appreciation for the act itself. Other characters make the mistake of referring to birding as a "hobby", but our trio, for better or worse, knows different. Just because you don't do it for a "living" doesn't merely mean it's a "hobby". Kenny, in fact, says "it's my calling." It's the best line in the whole film and should have been taken by director (David Frankel) and writer (Howard Franklin) as "The Big Year's" mantra. It is not.

Kenny has a mandatory wife (Rosamund Pike) at home who exists to continually ask Kenny why he must fly away to see so many birds in flight. She, of course, must also be pregnant so that when the time comes when Kenny needs to be at the hospital with his wife he is making a mad dash and she is waiting and he will have the Crisis Moment when a report of a rare bird is relayed to him at the exact moment he is about to enter the hospital. Oops! I meant spoiler alert! (In fairness to Pike, she actually does a marvelous job of playing this creaky part. Her line reading of "Why?" at a crucial moment is the best line reading in the whole hour-and-forty-minute affair.)

Stu is a self-made millionaire (billionaire? zillionaire?) with a loving wife and family who has long dreamt of striking out on his own Big Year. He does, and he makes a friend and ally in Brad Harris (Jack Black), 36 years old, divorced, stuck in a job he hates, living at home with his folks, including his father (Brian Dennehy) who scoffs, as he must, at his son's love of birding. Nevertheless, Brad takes aim at Kenny's record, bands with Stu, and Meets Cute with Rashida Jones (that beautiful tropical fish) who is one of many, many notable names in the cast with little more to do than act as a Plot Pawn. (Angelica Huston really should have had a bigger role. If you see the movie, you will know what I'm talking about.)

Brad is forced into any number of pratfalls, of course, because he is played by Jack Black, but look past that and you will notice actual nuance and grace emanating from his performance. He has a knack for capturing the obsessed, like Barry the music snob in "High Fidelity", and here he brings to life an affable man who knows his "calling" and finally chooses to see it through, maxed out credit cards be damned. The structure of the entire story, though, is so conventional and brought forth with so little pizazz it hampers Black and everyone around him.

There is a moment when the film slows down to chart two bald eagles mating but it chooses to present this by having Black explain it away in voiceover, undercutting the beauty of what we are seeing. Why not have Black say this earlier, setting it up, and then coming back around to the moment? The film is supposed to be about birding and birders and what drives them toward their passion, but it's not about that at all. It's "Cannonball Run" with birds. It's as if the two plain blaine dunderheaded second-in-commands to Stu who can't understand their boss's true "calling" ("those freaking birds") produced this film.

It's disappointing because there was a potentially interesting idea buried beneath the routine domestic squabbles and goofy antics crying out for exploration. Characters whose dreams and desires are often at odds with real life. But is it really a real life if you're forced to cast aside your dreams and desires? How do you balance the two? Where was that movie?

If "The Big Year" was based on a true story, perhaps it would have been smarter to not change the facts.

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