Silver Screen: The Big Year *1/2
Some movie premises sound so potentially boring that they're actually interesting. So Colin Farrell is in a phone booth for the entire movie? Are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck just going to wander through the desert without talking the whole time? Wait, so this really is just one guy having dinner with another guy named Andre?
It's the limitations of these movies (Phone Booth, Gerry, and My Dinner with Andre, if you're keeping score) that lend them the air of intrigue. How, exactly, is the director going to work within these narrow confines to produce a complete feature film? Alfred Hitchcock-- for whom the Phone Booth script was originally written-- was almost certainly the master of this game, best known for the claustrophobic Rear Window, but working in far tighter spaces in the essentially shot-in-one-take Rope, set entirely in an apartment, or the underrated wartime mystery Lifeboat, which takes place in a... well, you can probably guess. When done properly, such movies are dazzling, and like the haunted home in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (or, if you prefer, like Snoopy's doghouse) seem to contain an infinity within a tiny space.
This is all preamble to say that there's something strangely alluring about the premise of The Big Year, a movie about birdwatching. Three big stars-- Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black-- signed onto make the film, so surely director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) has some secret plan to find hidden depths and drama in what, on paper, sounds like the most boring possible subject for a feature film.
Alas, no. It turns out that The Big Year is the dullest major studio release in a long, long time.
The film is based on journalist Mark Obmascik's book of the same name about the real-life competition, called the big year, in which avid avian enthusiasts attempt to spot the most species of birds in a calendar year. The movie follows three birders: retired corporate exec Stu (Martin), down-on-his-luck officeworker Brad (Black), and contractor Kenny (Wilson), the champion seeking to defend his record.
Logistically, a big year is a complex endeavor, requiring the participants to travel across North America at precisely the right time to catch rarer species during their migratory cycles. No doubt that participating in the event would lead to a wealth of memorable experiences.
But watching other people travel is no fun, and watching them look through binoculars at a bird when they get there is even less rewarding. There's quite literally no dramatic payoff, and the most viewers can hope for in all the action, so to speak, is to see some lovely shots of nature in the background.
Frankel and screenwriter Howard Franklin attempt to find deeper meaning in the competition by casting the big-year competition as a kind of journey of self-discovery, but mostly this comes out as bland, mushy sentiment. Stu has spent so much of his life working to build his company that he has let life pass him by, and doing the big year is his attempt at living for himself-- all well and good, except that nobody in this protracted recession feels too badly for a guy whose main problem is being too successful, nevermind the fact that he seems to have a full, rich family life. Only Martin's gravitas lends the character any real interest.
Brad is the most obviously sympathetic character, but he's kind of a snooze, and the subplot in which he must reconnect with his distant father (Brian Dennehy) is simplistic and emotionally manipulative-- and it doesn't help that the pratfall-prone Black, admittedly restrained here, is miscast.
The most interesting character here is Wilson's hypercompetitive contractor, who risks the only meaningful personal relationship in his life to enter the contest. The movie's one real insight comes near the end when Brad, in a voiceover narrative, notes that only Kenny can know the sacrifices it takes to be the best at something, and this unsettling notion has a core of sadness and truth to it that resonates more than anything else in the movie, even if Kenny is somewhat dismissed as the movie's villain.
All of this is irrelevant, however, as Frankel never figures out a way to make the movie's conflict feel like a conflict or the action feel like anything more than watching someone watch something else. Despite the best efforts of the three leads and the excellent, almost totally wasted supporting cast (Joel McHale, Anjelica Huston, Kevin Pollak, Anthony Anderson), the movie never once even threatens to take flight.