One of the great pleasures of the movies is their ability to show us worlds that we would have never seen otherwise, be they real or fictitious. I don't think we'll ever live in a world where cartoon characters mingle with flesh-and-blood people, but I can watch "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and get a taste of what it might be like. I was completely unaware of the world of competitive birdwatching before seeing "The Big Year", but now I know that it is a thing that actually exists. The problem is that the film never gives you a single reason to care.
The title of the film is actually in reference to a specific
event - a year-long birdwatching competition to see who can spot the
most birds - and the film follows three different competitors on their
quest for glory. Jack Black is a divorced working-class schlub who has
always dreamed of doing something big with his life, preferably
something involving watching birds. Steve Martin is a millionaire CEO
who wants to retire so that he can go do a big year. And Owen Wilson is
the man who set the previous record for most birds seen in a big year
and has decided to do another one in an effort to keep his record alive.
The film basically follows these three characters either individually
or as their paths cross over the span of a year, as they all try to see
as many birds as is humanly possible. Some mild complications ensue, but
for the most part this is just a tame, light-hearted comedy that will appeal to old people and will not corrupt the minds of the adolescents who might be forced to watch it.
There is one big hurdle that "The Big Year" needs to overcome, which it doesn't come even remotely close to doing: it needs a compelling reason why anyone should care. The problem is that the whole
film revolves around a topic that is foreign to 99% of the audience, but
it never gives you a single reason why you should be interested. For
that matter, it doesn't even give the characters a reason for being interested, which is really the fatal flaw of the movie.
There's no convincing reason why any of these guys are so into birds,
and you are left wondering why anyone would be. Right from the start,
Black says "who doesn't love birds?", but that's about as much of an
explanation as there is. I have nothing against birds, but I don't
particularly love them, and I would never spend an entire year and untold thousands of dollars looking for them. So what winds up
happening is you spend the whole movie just thinking to yourself, "man,
what a complete waste of time and money it is to do this". It doesn't
help that the three leads are basically just playing familiar roles
instead of real characters. Each of their characters are summed up by a line-or-two of voice-over in the beginning and then that's about it. We only get a vague sense of who they are, and we certainly never believe in their convictions.
The complete lack of anything interesting happening throughout "The Big Year" would make it a bad movie no
matter what, but there's an overall laziness to the whole thing that
truly cements it. There is a large supporting cast filled with great
talents like Joel McHale, Tim Blake Nelson, and Anjelica Huston, but all of them
are completely wasted. Why you would hire someone like McHale and then
not even give him a single humorous line of dialogue is beyond me. Then there are just a bevy of stupid little details that
aren't that bad on their own but really add up. For starters, much is
made of the fact that the three leads claim they aren't doing a big
year, but in fact are doing one. Well DUH! Then there are the corporate lackeys at Martin's firm that keep harassing him over every little business detail even though he has retired. It makes it look as if Martin has built an empire made up entirely of incompetent goons that can't make a decision without him. Then there is the fact that this whole competition is based on "the honor system", which just makes it seem that much more pointless. You don't necessarily have to have proof that you saw a rare bird as long as you said you saw it. Give me a break.
The best I can say for "The Big Year" is that it is harmless. It's really more boring than it is flat-out terrible, and its worst sin is just that it manages to waste so much considerable talent. Wilson is the only one who gets a few chuckles simply by doing the same thing he has been doing for years, but that is a small consolation. It is only rated PG, so it is rather family friendly, but there are so much better choices out there if you want to get the family together to see a movie. This is the first - and last - time I will spend a considerable amount of time exploring the wacky world of competitive birdwatching. The fact that this film is based on real life is simply depressing.