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The Big Year (2011)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 1/31/2012

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/5/2012

Any successful actor is going to face the possibility of being pigeon-holed. If you're good in more than one movie which falls into a specific genre, then audiences are going to expect to see you in that kind of movie. However, once actors reach a certain level of fame and wealth, no one should begrudge them the opportunity to branch out and try something different. Who knows, they may succeed. We've seen comedic actors like Jim Carrey go more dramatic in something like The Truman Show, for which he got a Golden Globe, and Robin Williams won an Academy Award for his serious turn in Good Will Hunting. So, comedic actors going for something other than laughs can be a good thing, right. Yes, but The Big Year shows that some people may want to stick to their day jobs.

The Big Year follows the lives of three men. Brad Harris (Jack Black) writes computer code for a power plant. He lives alone. Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) is a corporate CEO who is trying to retire so that he can spend more time with his wife, Edith (JoBeth Williams), but work keeps calling him back. Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is a successful contractor who is married to Jessica (Rosamund Pike). What do these three men have in common? They all participate in birding -- which layman call bird watching. The most prestigious achievement in birding is to do a "Big Year". This occurs when a birder attempts to see how many different bird species they can see in one year. Bostick is the current record holder, and Brad decides that he's going to use his savings to take the title. But, Bostick wants to remain champion. Stu is determined to finally leave work behind and learn how many birds he can see. As these three men travel the country, acting on tips and following weather patterns, they begin to run into each other over and over again, and a competition begins.

When I told a friend that I was reviewing The Big Year, she said, "the birdwatching movie?" I had just seen trailer for the film which made it appear to be much more than that, and I responded as such. Having now seen the movie, I can say, yeah, this is the birdwatching movie. And, as odd as this may sound, this is the first strike against the movie. Birding is a unique hobby and ostensibly, a movie about it could be interesting. The Big Year shows birding to be an obsession which can otherwise ruin someone's life. Again, this is perfectly acceptable material for a movie. So, why doesn't it work here? One reason is that the movie doesn't work very hard to make the audience understand why these three men love birding. We see the work which they put into it (more on that in a moment) and we see their passion, but we never feel it. The movie is very emotionally distant on this front. Even when it's detrimental to their personal relationships, their motivations seem vague, other than the pursuit of the highest number of birds sighted.

Which brings us to some of the story issues with the movie. We are told at the outset that the definition of a "big year" is the attempt to see as many bird species as possible in one year. Then, as the story moves along, Stu, Bostick, and Brad keep running into one another in the wild. But, they all deny doing a "big year" when confronted with the question. This confounded me. Do casual birders typically criss-cross the U.S. going to any lengths possible to see a bird just for the fun of it? I got the impression that every character in the movie was doing a "big year" and the film didn't do enough to differentiate between the casual birders and the true competitors. And then we have Brad's financial situation. Being a birder must be the most expensive hobby ever, as the guys travel long distances on a regular basis. At the beginning, Brad states that he's saved some money and he asks his parents (Brian Dennehy and Dianne Weist) for a loan. During the course of the film, we see that he's run out of money. And yet, he keeps trekking around the nation. The movie implies that he's putting all of his salary into his quest, but this seems far-fetched. This had the feel of yet another movie which is out of touch of the financial reality of most Americans. I'd be willing to bet that Bostick is viewed as the middle-class character here by the filmmakers, when, in reality, he's easily upper middle-class.

These issues aside, the biggest disappointment about The Big Year is that it is funny, nor, is it meant to be. This is meant to be a dramedy, but it falls more in the drama category. Again, the movie actually has little narrative, as it's simply a combination of scenes in which the characters look at birds or go home to deal with issues there. There's actually little opportunity for comedy here, save for Jack Black stumbling around. As noted above, there's nothing wrong with comedic actors doing something more serious. The issue here is that you can't walk into a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, with supporting appearances by Joel McHale, Jim Parsons, Kevin Pollak, and Tim Blake Nelson, and not expect some laughs. I've seen plenty of dramas with moments of levity, but there's nothing funny here. What a waste of talent.

The Big Year comes from Director David Frankel who showed that he could balance very serious issues with some lighter moments in The Devil Wears Prada. Of course, he also directed Marley & Me...the less said about that, the better. The Big Year presents us with subject matter to which is hard to relate, it never establishes a narrative rhythm, it offers some questionable logic, and it never allows Steve Martin to be funny. Also, I didn't learn much about birding from it, save that it's a hobby which I can't afford. I'm probably making the movie sound a lot worse than it actually is, but there's no doubt that it was a disappointment.

The Big Year contains what appears to be a lot of stock footage of birds on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only a trace amount of grain and no defects from the source material. The most striking thing about this transfer are the colors. The colors are bright and realistic, and the image is never overly dark or bright. There are a lot of daytime exteriors in the film, and they display a nice depth in which the actors are clearly delineated from the backgrounds. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. For a film of this type, we get a nice amount of audio effects. Many of the exterior nature scenes contain nicely placed surround sound and stereo effects, highlighting bird calls and sounds like ocean waves. These effects are detailed and clearly placed in the appropriate speaker. We get some minor subwoofer effects from strong weather conditions.

The Big Year Blu-ray Disc contains only a few extras. The Disc contains twelve DELETED SCENES which run about 17 minutes. These are mostly brief, incidental scenes, none of which introduce new ideas or subplots. Some are simply longer versions of scenes from the movie. We get a 6-minute GAG REEL. "The Big Migration" (18 minutes) takes us behind the scenes and on the road with the cast and crew as we see the many different locations across the U.S. and Canada where the film was shot. This includes on-set footage and descriptions of some of the key scenes from the movie. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long