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In The Big Year a group of individuals engage in a competition to see who can spot the largest number of bird species, in a single year. There is no prize for seeing the most; you don’t even have to take pictures to prove you did it, so there’s a pretty good chance that whoever beats you will be cheating. Yet apparently a few people do this anyway, and when they do it, it’s called a Big Year.
Jack Black is the star of this movie, playing a guy who’s such a complete loser he works a highly skilled job at a nuclear power plant, where he’s much in demand. Some people might call that a promising career, but for some reason Black’s character, and everyone around him, behaves as though he works at a 7-Eleven. He’s in competition to see birds with characters who aren’t named Steve Martin and Owen Wilson, but whom I will call Steve Martin and Owen Wilson because that’s what you’ll remember them as. Steve Martin plays the kind of fatherly figure he’s really good at, and even though this is a pretty listless movie, whenever he opens his mouth to dispense wisdom I’m happy to sit back and take it in. I wish he was my dad. Owen Wilson plays some sort of sneaky asshole who wears an inappropriate hat.
None of this amounts to much of anything. The three of them race around on adventures in spotting birds, but if you can walk out of the theater and name any particular scene which stands out above the others, I’ll give you a round of applause. Nothing here makes much of an impression. Except there’s this scene where Owen Wilson hangs his pants from a flag pole, but for some reason this only happens in the background and is generally ignored. The Big Year is good at that, ignoring anything happening which might be interesting enough to get blood pumping into the brain.
What this is, is a movie for out of touch, slightly judgmental grandparents. You know, the sort of grandparents who look down on you for that Back to the Future poster hanging on the wall of your office, because they don’t like the way the kids in that movie talk back to their parents.
In the same way that certain movies are made just for kids, The Big Year is made for uptight people over the age of 55 who won’t watch anything that isn’t rated PG but don’t really like cartoons. As it is with those children’s movies, it’s possible to make a good movie for this demographic, but like The Bucket List and countless other movies before it, The Big Year doesn’t really bother, because it doesn’t have to. It has the rating and it has the cast, in this case Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. Actors that people over the age of fifty will love, and maybe even feel a little bit edgy for loving. That Jack Black fellow, he used to do movies where he played guitar with the Devil, before he settled down, started a family, and headed down the righteous path of making movies involving Lilliputians.
I’m not actually certain that The Big Year panders to this particularly boring demographic intentionally, it could well be a series of unfortunate coincidences, and from the way the studio has failed to market it to anyone (let alone those people) I’d say it is. Maybe this is just what happens when you try to make a movie about bird watching. Maybe it’s impossible to make anything really interesting, on a subject that is itself so inherently uninteresting. But I don’t want to believe that.
Somewhere in the germ of this idea is a way to make a good movie. It could have been a road movie, in which we follow characters to exotic, life changing locations which change them forever. The Big Year goes to a lot of different places, but they never really seem to have much of an impact on anyone. Alternatively, there’s something interesting buried in the kind of mad obsession it takes to engage in such a fruitless and ultimately empty endeavor as trying to see a lot of birds. Yet Big Year never does anything more than a cursory inspection of that aspect of this story. I’d have made this the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas of bird watching movies, if I were in charge of it. Instead they’ve made The Bucket List without the skydiving. It’s not a bad movie, but the only real reason to watch it is if you’re looking for something to talk about with your granny.