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A Flock of Dodos

by John Rodat on October 19, 2011 · 1 comment

The Big Year
Directed by David Frankel

What the hell is that? Wilson, Martin and Black in The Big Year.

Director David Frankel has been attached to big money makers. Keep that in mind. He directed the pilot episode of Entourage, as well as both The Devil Wears Prada and the record-breaking Marley & Me, among other things. Say it again, David Frankel has made money.

Otherwise, you might be completely flummoxed as to how a PG movie about competitive birders (not “birdwatchers,” by the way) attracted such a long list of known–if not exactly A list–actors: stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black, but also JoBeth Williams, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, Rashida Jones, Angelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, Rosamund Pike, Steven Weber and, in a voice role, John Cleese.

And I think I’m probably forgetting someone.

I know, right?! Crazy. Now, as it happens, The Big Year is not making money. In fact, so far, it’s been a spectacular flop, financially. So, aside from money, what is David Frankel capable of making?

A bit of a mess, it turns out. The Big Year is not a very well-directed movie. It’s lazily paced, largely tensionless, and, yet, strangely cluttered by directorial intrusions: There’s a fitful narration by Black; an inexplicable, expository, second narration by John Cleese; unnecessary screen graphics; and some of the most annoying CGI in film history. It’s as if Frankel did not have the confidence of his source (the nonfictional The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Foul Obsession by Mark Obmascik) to just tell the story. Which is too bad, because, beneath the junk there is material enough for a mild and appealing family film.

The trio of stars play avid birders of very different backgrounds. Martin is a millionaire on the verge of retirement from the corporate empire he has created; Wilson is a smooth-talking contractor and the current record holder for most birds sighted in a year (the titular Big Year); Black is a bumbling and underachieving divorcee, seeking self-definition by toppling Wilson’s character from his perch.

Over the course of the year depicted, the trio must juggle their personal lives and responsibilities, their burgeoning friendships/personal rivalries, and the capricious movements and migrations of the increasingly rare birds they need to log to win. Martin, Wilson and Black all play to type and do nothing that will surprise; but these types work well enough together to deliver the fable-like, but not too heavy-handed moral, which is something along the lines of “You can’t always get what you want . . .”

As it stands, the movie is a perfectly acceptable children’s movie (in retrospect, off the top of my head, I can’t recall anything that justifies its PG rating. I don’t see why it couldn’t have been G). Frustratingly, it could have been a better than average kids flick, if Frankel had backed off a bit and relied more on the gorgeous avian photography—and ditched the couple-three idiotic CGI bird scenes, which cheapened things and added nothing.

Take your kids. It’s safe enough. But adults, just install a birdfeeder and queue up The Jerk, Tenacious D, or Bottle Rocket.

Oh! Corbin Bernson! That’s who I forgot! Corbin Bernson.

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