October 14, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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THE BIG YEARWatch It At Home – Very Small Pleasures


THE BIG YEAR is an amiable, good-natured comedy that’s so insubstantial it seems to fly out of your memory even as you’re watching it.  If it had been a low-budgeted indie that turned up at a film festival, it might have felt like a tiny delight, but with a big-studio sheen and the combined talents of Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) involved, it all feels a little like a waste.

The subject is birding, where a “Big Year” is what the enthusiast can claim who manages to see more species of birds than anyone else that year.   There’s no prize, cash or otherwise, apart from a bit of notoreity within the birding community, and of course the satisfaction of being the winner.  (This is all inspired by a real event:  Howard Franklin’s script is based on the nonfiction book by Mark Obmascik.)  Having a Big Year isn’t easy:  by definition, it involves almost 365 days of nonstop travel, seeking out the birds as they appear anywhere in the US.  Our 3 protagonists all seek the title for their own reasons.  Stu Preissler (Martin) has been a hard-driving businessman all his life; now that he’s retired, he can finally devote his efforts–and wealth–to accomplishing his Big Year.  Kenny Bostick (Wilson) has won the title before, ruining his first marriage, and he’s grimly determined to do it again, despite growing tensions with his new wife (Rosamund Pike).  And Brad Harris (Black)’s whole life has been a disappointment; he’s decided that completing a Big Year is where he’ll make his stand and finally score a victory.


We follow all of them as they crisscross the nation, up to and including Alaska, following every rumor, flying and driving and tramping every terrain, looking for the rarest of birds and, as they gradually discover who their competition is, trying to gain advantages.  It’s sort of a very low-key, almost New Age version of a Cannonball Run concept, but this time the rivals are genial practically all the time.  Franklin’s script has plenty of amusing incident, and story arcs for all the leads (when Brad sights a lovely birder played by Rashida Jones, you can bet she’ll be back before the year ends).  There’s the occasional show of selfishness by one character or another, but it’s always mild, and often regretted afterward.


As a result, The Big Year is perfectly pleasant without being memorable in any way.  Black and Martiin’s characters bond, and the two of them make a nice pair together.  Martin, at this point, is an ultimate smoothie in this kind of role, and Black subdues his usual frenzy quite a bit.  Wilson isn’t ideally cast as the most driven of the competitors (he had worked with Frankel on Marley & Me); his general laid-back persona removes most of the threat from even the most underhanded of Kenny’s tactics.  The other very fine performers who turn up in smaller roles include Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, Anjelica Huston, JoBeth Williams, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Anderson, Jim Parsons, and Tim Blake Nelson.

Although there’s some silliness in the storyline, Frankel modulates the tone most of the time to the same reasonably effective low-key level.  Visually, the film is unimpressive:  there are some nice scenic expanses shot by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, but the interiors look like the soundstages they are.  The other technical credits are very conventional.

The Big Year isn’t well-observed enough to be more than an ordinary Hollywood comedy, and while modesty can be a virtue, this wasn’t necessarily the place for it.  Unlike its protagonists, the movie doesn’t have that core of inspired madness that it takes to accomplish a crazy goal.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."