Thursday, October 13, 2011

A 'Big Year,' yes, but an awfully small movie

Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin find a formula for blandness.
On the elevator leading to the parking lot after a preview screening of The Big Year, a woman asked me what I thought of the movie.

"Well, it certainly felt like a year to me," I said perhaps a bit too glibly.

My fellow passenger said she thought the birds were beautiful.

The birds? Yes, the birds.

Based on a book by journalist Mark Obmascik, The Big Year is about birders, enthusiasts who engage in a pastime that the uninitiated among us call bird watching. But some birders are more passionate than others, and the most passionate among them participate in a contest known as The Big Year. The winner: the person who sees the most species over the course of the year. The prize: The title, world's best birder.

Now, let me make something clear. I like stories about obsessive personalities. If birds are your obsession, I'm willing to listen for hours. But "The Big Year," a movie about passion and obsession, doesn't feel especially passionate or obsessive. It's a straight-ahead, mid-range production that neither annoyed nor thrilled me.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) builds his movie around three characters:

-- Kenny Bostick, played by Owen Wilson. Kenny is the most competitive and compulsive of the birders in The Big Year contest. He's so committed to piling up numbers that he badly neglects the wife (Rosamund Pike). She's remodeling their house and having difficulty becoming pregnant, a task made more daunting by her husband's prolonged absences.

-- Brad Harris, portrayed by Jack Black. Harris is employed but has the kind of slacker look you'd expect from a Jack Black character. Brad's at odds with his father (Brian Dennehy) over a life that's consumed by birds. His mother (Dianne Wiest) supports the preoccupation that has taken on greater importance for Brad than his occupation. She even makes his travel arrangements.

-- Stu Preissler, played by Steve Martin. Stu is a successful New York executive who goes into semi-retirement to compete in The Big Year. His wife (JoBeth Williams) has an independent life of her own, and is totally supportive of her husband's efforts.

That's the rundown. The movie spends most of its time making points: The Big Year competitors are secretive; participation involves extensive travel, including to Attu, Alaska, a hardship post that's also a birders' paradise, Of course, no one can participate in something this consuming without difficulty.

Each of the three main characters has a basic problem: Harris needs money to compete; Bostick must decide whether he's willing to sacrifice his marriage to be the world's best birder; and Preissler must determine whether he's going to give up the corporate world for good and settle into the beautiful retirement home he and his wife have built in Vail.

None of these "conflicts" leads to anything especially heavy; the movie feels light and its attempts at humor are mostly mild.

So what's missing?

As it turns out, the author of the book, Mark Obmascik, was in the audience at the preview screening I attended. In remarks before the film, Obmascik said that after a life of writing about cops, felons and politicians, it was a pleasure for him to write about people he actually liked.

And these characters are mostly likable, but on screen, they're also bland. Preissler and Harris team up in an attempt to defeat the arrogant Bostick, but this is a movie of dull edges, underdeveloped subplots and undernourished secondary characters. The main performances? They're OK, nothing more.

Despite its stabs at conflict and laughs, The Big Year qualifies as the cinematic equivalent of easy listening. It's pleasant, which - I admit -- may be damning with faint praise. And, yes, the birds are beautiful.

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