Friday, October 21, 2011

Look, Up in the Sky! It’s a Jurassic Park for Our Times

One friend liked to call me Bird Nerd. For another, the teasing term was Birdbrain. That was back when I first became interested in the little feathered creatures descended from dinosaurs. Though I never went on any far-flung birding adventures as the characters in The Big Year do, I bought a field guide and binoculars to spy on the chickadees, blue jays, sparrows and cardinals that visited my neighborhood. I even learned to recognize some distinctive avian songs, much like Brad Harris (Jack Black) does in the film – which takes its title from an annual competition to witness more species than anyone else. A regular among the throngs that race to every site where rare birds have been spotted, he also is a contender in this contest.

Brad’s top rivals are Stu Pleisser (Steve Martin) and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), a world-renowned champion in the sport who’ll stop at nothing to win. Even though a triumph brings only bragging rights, no prize money, male egos are at stake. For the better part of 365 days, the trio traipses through all kinds of weather to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf of Mexico, the Carolinas and beyond.

Stu is the well-heeled owner of a successful New York City-based corporation but, as retirement age nears, he no longer finds the business world fulfilling. Although two executives at the company (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak) plead with him to stay on board, at least until some important deal with a similar mogul (Steven Weber) is negotiated, The Big Year beckons. Luckily, his wife Edith (JoBeth Williams) supports the birding obsession that threatens to keep him out-of-town during the birth of their first grandchild.

            Steve Martin and Jack Black in The Big Year wilderness

Kenny, a contractor, lives in a New Jersey mansion that his spouse Jessica (Rosamund Pike) wants to renovate so that there will be a room for the baby she hopes to have with help from a fertility clinic. Since her obsessed husband is always on the go, his necessary participation in the conception process is not guaranteed.

Brad’s marital status: divorced. The former Mrs. apparently did not appreciate his utter devotion to ornithology, as he confesses to fellow enthusiast Ellie (Rashida Jones), a gal able to mimic bird calls that he then identifies. Could be their idea of foreplay.
Elie has a boyfriend back in Boston who’s a non-birder, so it’s a no-brainer (no-birdbrainer?) that Brad will wind up as her soul mate. Meanwhile, his father (Brian Dennehy) thinks the lad, unhappily employed as a computer geek, is a loser. Mom (Dianne Wiest) encourages her son to follow his dreams.
If the cast sounds like it’s stuffed with talented folks in minimal roles, take a gander at the luminaries that appear in even smaller cameos: Corbin Bernsen as a daredevil chopper pilot; Jim Parsons as Brad’s sleuthing ally; Anthony Anderson as Brad’s boss; Tim Blake Nelson as Kenny’s hapless sidekick; Steven Weber as a mogul negotiating with Stu’s firm. An unseen John Cleese narrates a montage about birding history. Oh, yeah. I could swear I saw Rupert Murdoch in a very brief turn as an Australian tourist who complains that only Americans would turn the gentle art of birding into a ruthless competition.  If so, this makes sense since The Big Year comes courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox, which he owns. Must have been pre-phone hacking scandal. Talk about ruthless!
A Great Horned Owl
Director David Frankel doesn’t bring nearly as much fun via black comedy to the proceedings as he did with The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Maybe it’s not his fault. The script, which Howard Franklin (Quick Change, 1990) adapted from a 2004 non-fiction book by Denver journalist Mark Obmascik, seems to miss almost every opportunity to make the hijinks soar as high as the winged non-human stars.

Jack Black also is tamped down, perhaps a good thing for the hyperactive performer. Steve Martin’s usual comic brilliance is dimmed. All of which leaves most of the wild and crazy behavior in the hands of Wilson. He and his brother Luke, both of whom hail from Texas, are greatly overrated actors with limited range in my estimation. I cringe at their accents that sound more Midwestern than Southwestern and never change, no matter what the films they’re in might require.
Oh, well. The nuthatches, juncos, buntings, terns, tanagers, sparrows and redpolls warble their tunes perfectly. Those updated dinosaurs sure can create a joyful noise. And, take it from this unrepentant Bird Nerd, an amazing owl truly steals the show.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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