A comedy featuring Steve Martin Jack Black and Owen Wilson creates certain expectations not the least of which is well laughter. But David Frankel’s (Marley & Me The Devil Wears Prada) anodyne feather-light film The Big Year in which the three actors star is less concerned with eliciting big laughs than offering earnest insights on the meaning of success and the value of friendship.
Delving into the subculture of hard-core birders (don’t call them bird-watchers) the film follows three men semi-retired industrialist Stu (Martin) schlubby corporate drone Brad (Black) and suburban contractor Kenny (Wilson) as they vie in a year-long competition known as the Big Year. The goal of the competition is simple: to spot as many different bird species in North America as possible. As current Big Year record-holder Kenny is something of a rock star in the birding world. His cocky carefree manner masks a stark determination to defend his hard-won celebrity – and his fragile ego – against the likes of upstarts Stu and Brad both of whom are Big Year rookies. None of the three leads stray far from type but they do offer slight tweaks to their usual screen personas: Wilson is sly and Machiavellian; Black tones down the buffoonery limiting himself to two (by my rough count) pratfalls; Martin’s sardonicism is tempered with humility.
There’s no prize for winning a Big Year; the sole reward is the adulation of fellow members of the birding community. Competition is surprisingly fierce. The three men frantically criss-cross the continent darting from one remote location to another in search of the next rare find. At first wary of each other Stu and Brad eventually unite over a mutual desire to defeat Kenny whose crafty gamesmanship has frustrated them both. Their strategic pact gradually evolves into a genuine friendship leading both men to discover that there are more important things in life than winning an amateur birding competition.
Shot on location in British Columbia the Canadian Yukon Upstate New York Joshua Tree and the Florida Everglades The Big Year is a visually striking film showcasing one breathtaking panorama after another. At times director Frankel appears more interested in the scenery than his characters who despite the script's copious exposition aren't particularly well-developed. The story at times seem aimless and unfocused and its relaxed pace may prove vexing for some. Indeed it did for me at first. But once I adjusted to its easygoing rhythm the film’s modest charms began to reveal themselves.
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.
What No Reservations needs is a smell-sensitive rat who can cook. Instead we get head chef Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a perfectionist who runs the kitchen of a swanky Manhattan eatery with an iron fist. Let’s just say she’s in desperate need of an attitude adjustment so in pops new sous-chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart) a free-spirited fellow who cooks by the seat of his pants. Soon he’s got the whole kitchen staff laughing and loving him way more than Kate. Nick tries to charm Kate too but she won’t have any of it. To top it off Kate unexpectedly becomes the guardian of her 9 year-old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin) after her sister dies in a car accident. The understandably distraught Zoe is having a tough time and won’t eat any of her aunt’s highfalutin cuisine. The little girl only likes fish sticks—and as it turns out spaghetti a Nick specialty. Yes Nick finally melts Kate’s heart when he gets Zoe to eat a hearty bowl of spaghetti. You can see where this is going right? Love—and tomato sauce—conquers all. When you have two incredibly attractive people onscreen together you want the sparks to fly. Think Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. True those two were falling in love for real but still it makes for a more fulfilling and cinematically romantic experience. But alas it doesn’t always work out and in No Reservations’ case the love story between Zeta-Jones and Eckhart deflates like a fallen soufflé. On their own they each hold up well: Zeta-Jones is good at being steely but emotionally stunted when it comes to matters of the heart while Eckhart’s easy-going charm and great smile make his Nick an obvious choice for any woman. Get them together however and things sag like a wet noodle. Too bad. Breslin is her usual cute self playing it a little more somber than she did in Little Miss Sunshine but the little actress ought to be careful not to pigeon-hole herself into the “eccentric but affecting” kid role. No Reservations also has another knock against it: It’s a remake of the German film Mostly Martha a far more stellar—and original—effort. Natch. Turning a hit foreign film into a studio picture rarely works out; something always gets missed in the translation which for No Reservations is surprising since Mostly Martha writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck is listed as the co-writer. What Nettelbeck did with Mostly Martha is revolve her story around master chef Martha (played brilliantly by Martina Gedeck) and her quirks and anxieties over suddenly having to raise a child. The love story with the Italian chef is more a pleasant surprise than the driving force. But of course with No Reservations the romance is played up for that certain chick flick appeal with two people who have no chemistry. Maybe Nettelbeck was lured into Americanizing her original. For his part director Scott Hicks (Shine) is definitely capable enough to carve out what he can from this predictable set up even adding some flair to the kitchen scenes but he can’t quite push No Reservations past its banality.
Alpine University film student Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison) needs to start her senior project but she's stymied by a case of screenwriter's block. Then a chance encounter with the new campus cop (Loretta Devine the only link to the original "Urban Legend") gives her an idea: She'll make a film about a serial killer who slays college students in ways related to urban legends. Needless to say her cast and crew members (Joseph Lawrence Eva Mendez Jessica Cauffiel) start to disappear in a series of bizarre and mysterious incidents. And yes the killer is the person you would least suspect but only because he/she lacks a plausible motive.
Morrison ("Stir of Echoes") never finds the right mix of vulnerability naïveté and attitude to play the slasher flick damsel-in-distress-turned-heroine. (And she's never in any real peril.) Sorely missing are the outrageous performances that Rebecca Gayheart Danielle Harris and Julian Richings provided in the original "Urban Legend" -- the supporting players shackled to tired Hollywood clichés and a lackluster story never get to exercise their dramatic talents.
Freshman director John Ottman struggles with an already sputtering script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson. Apparently the muse of over-the-top schlock horror blessed the first 15 minutes of the film then succumbed to spontaneous human combustion. With the exception of a mildly amusing "Blair Witch" cinéma-vérité parody the balance of the film generates neither thrill nor swill.