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.
Chapter One: "The Second Coming"
9:01: With slicked back hair and a big nasty scar on his face, Peter Petrelli runs into a warehouse. Claire, looking all sleek in black leather and dark hair, is there. Nasty Claire, villainous Claire with a gun. She shoots Peter, but he dodges it, of course, and jumps back in time…
9:03: …To the press conference at which Nathan is about to confess having powers. Future Peter shoots his brother to stop the mayhem he may cause with his announcement. Present-day Peter, who is next to Nathan, chases future Peter. Future Peter escapes, but what happened to present-day Peter? A person can go crazy thinking about all this stuff.
9:08: Nathan dies of chest wounds, only to suddenly come alive again. With future Peter there beside him. He later claims he talked to God when he died, for just a little bit, and that the Big Guy left him a message. Oh please, Nathan is going Old Testament on us.
9:10 Hiro! Bored out of his mind in an office at his dead father’s company, making the clock go back and forth in time. Yeah, he’s not cut out for office work.
9:12: Sylar visits Claire. Uh-oh. He says he’s back. It was like “a long night after a bad taco.” He still wants to eat her brains, though. She breaks away to hide in a closet. Like that’s supposed to stop him.
9:18: Back with Hiro. His father has left him a video message saying that he’s a sentinel to a dangerous secret that could cause the end of the world locked in a safe in the office. But, he warns his son, DO NOT OPEN THE SAFE. Yeah, that’s just an open invitation for Hiro the hero. He opens the safe, finds half of a formula. Suddenly, it flies out of his hands. Quick thinking, Hiro stops time and follows the wake of whoever grabbed it. It’s a blonde chick who calls herself a speedster, and yes, she steals the formula.
9:31: Maya, aka black-goo eyed girl, and Mohinder are taking samples to try to get rid of her powers. BORING.
9:34: Sylar cuts open a screaming Claire’s head.
9:38: Sylar’s got Claire’s head open and his hands in her brain. Gross. “Are you going to eat it?” “Eat your brain? Claire, that’s disgusting.” He finds some point in her brain, sticks his finger there, sucks in some kind of essence and then stands up. He sticks the top of her head back on, and she immediately heals. “You aren’t going to kill me?” “You’re special, not like the others. You can never die. And I guess now neither can I.” Wow, guess that answers the way Sylar gets people’s powers out their heads. Weird.
9:44: More Maya and Mohinder. Still boring.
9:48: Baddie Linderman, who you recall died last season, shows up in Nathan’s hospital room, saying he healed Nathan. Seems like no one can die on this show.
9:49: Nikki makes an appearance in a corset and garters, further cementing the idea that no one can die on the show, not really (she was supposed to have been blown up in a building). Her, um, boyfriend, whom she calls “Governor” is watching Nathan on TV, quoting divine intervention. Governor guys says “We may have found our guy, Tracy.” She thinks he’s right. “I like him” Tracy? New alter ego? Where’s Micah?
9:51: Matt wakes up in the desert with a scorpion on his face. Yuck. He was sent there by future Peter to get him out of the way.
9:54: Hiro jumps to the future for a moment, because, you know, that’s what he does. He lands on the streets of Tokyo, which is in chaos, people running and screaming everywhere. Then he sees his future self fighting with Ando, who is holding the formula in his hand. “You betrayed me!” Hiro screams. He tries to use his sword against Ando, but Ando blasts him with electrical current and escapes. The present-day Hiro turns to see Tokyo engulfed in an Armageddon blast.
9:58: Mohinder’s got a power, Mohinder’s got a power! After injecting himself with his serum from Maya’s blood, Mohinder suddenly finds himself with super strength. Cool.
10:00 Mohinder in voiceover: “Surely, the second coming is at hand.”
Chapter Two “The Butterfly Effect”
10:01: Poor Claire bear. She can’t feel anything anymore, no pain--the only thing she had that made her feel human. What’s the point then, she ponders? Ah, the dark side is creeping in.
10:04: Angela Petrelli sees the future in her dreams. That’s her special gift--and she knows all about the butterfly effect, the one in which you step on a butterfly in the past and the future is all screwed up. In one particular dream, she walks into a room and sees that all the good guys are dead--Hiro, Matt, Claire, Bennett, Peter. And all the villains are standing there: Nikki, Matt’s dad, Adam, some black dude--and, of course, Sylar.
10:09: Mohinder and Maya have sex. The new and improved Mohinder, that is. He reminds me of Jeff Goldblum from The Fly.
10:12: Elle and her dad Bob are back. Love Elle! She screwed up and let Sylar go, but she knows she can get him back. Bob doesn’t trust her. Bob isn’t going to live long, by the way.
10:15: Nikki is Tracy Strauss now, an adviser to Governor Mulden (OK, that’s his name). They both want Nathan to fill some senator’s seat, so she’s going to go talk to him. Later, she is approached by a guy in the parking garage, who shows her a picture of herself, as Nikki/Jessica the stripper, in Las Vegas. Wait, is that William Katt from the The Greatest American Hero blackmailing Nikki, er, Tracy? With a soul patch?
10:22: Linderman isn’t really alive. Nathan is the only one who can see him. That makes a little more sense. Nathan takes Tracy up on the senate offer.
10:24: Elle: “My dad’s dead, Sylar killed him.” She has burst into Bennet’s cell at the Company lab and throws him a gun. Indeed, Syler is there. Bennet tries to kill him, but of course it doesn’t work because, as he tells Bennet, he got his daughter’s powers. Bennet charges, and Syler tosses him aside like a paper doll. Then Syler grabs Elle and tries to open up her head. Big mistake. She turns into an electrical live wire and blows Sylar backwards. Nifty trick.
10:30: Hiro and Ando are in the speedster’s house in Paris. She’s a master thief. Can’t find the formula, though.
10:34: Tracy/Nikki has a new power, Tracy/Nikki has a new power! The William Katt reporter threatens Tracy again with his story of her as a stripper, and even shows her having sex with Nathan (back in the day, as Jessica). She starts to lose it, and grabs the guy’s arm. He suddenly turns to ice and breaks apart, all over the parking garage floor. Now, how the hell did she get THAT power?
10:38 Sylar is under wraps at the Company lab--again. Mama Petrelli shows up and hands Elle her walking papers. Seems the villains held prisoner at the Company lab have escaped because of electrical burst. Watch out, Elle is one spiteful girl. Meanwhile, Bennet heads home.
10:42: Hiro really should tell Ando what he saw in the future. Ando doesn’t get why Hiro is acting all weird around him.
10:43: I knew it! Mohinder IS turning into a fly! His body is mutating.
10:48: A water-deprived Matt in the desert thinks he is talking to a turtle. Actually, it’s some African fellow. “You from America? Do you know Britney Spears?” That’s funny. Suddenly, we realize he knows Matt--and because he is there, the future is not right. Goodness, everyone is in on this thing.
10:53: At the Bennet household, Mr. B feels like he is the only who can stop those nasty baddies on the loose. Claire wants to go with him, but he won’t let her. Instead, he reveals that Claire’s real mom is here to help protect Claire and the rest of the family. The lady has some fire power.
10:55: We find out what happened to the present-day Peter Petrelli. Future Peter somehow trapped him into the body of a real villain named Jessie, one of the escapees from the lab. Now, present-day Peter is stuck traveling around with the dangerous crew.
10:57 Stop the presses! Mama Petrelli is Sylar’s mother?
Williem Forrester (Connery) is a hermit living in the same Bronx apartment he grew up in. He's also a well-known author famous for publishing just one book. Now in his old age he spends his days at the typewriter and looking out his window watching life go by. Through a series of events he befriends Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) and soon starts editing the budding scribe's writing samples. Forrester immediately recognizes Jamal's talents as well as the areas he can improve. Jamal soaks up his mentor's guidance but also sets out to help his friend's fear of venturing out of his apartment and embracing life once again.
One would expect to see more from a veteran actor like Connery in this film. However what he delivers is a similar character we've seen in several of his films: an authoritative figure with a underlying sarcastic sense of humor (see "Entrapment"). The real scene-stealer in this one is newcomer Brown. The young actor shines in his major film debut portraying a kid from the Bronx with talent that stretches from the point of his pen to the basketball court. Anna Paquin is well cast as the down-to-earth daughter of the school director who catches Jamal's eye.
Director Gus Van Sant delivers a drama that could have spent more time in the editing room. Clocking in at a little over two hours it takes too long to reach its resolution that pretty much can be predicted halfway into film. Watching Connery transform from a reclusive bitter man into a life-embracing softie is as cliché as Hollywood films come. Van Sant's best move was introducing the American audience to Brown and the marvelous presence he brings to the big screen. This young actor is one to look out for in the years to come.