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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Political intrigue corruption scandal sex — it’s all here in this Americanized adaptation of the much acclaimed 2003 six-hour BBC miniseries. With the story shifting from London to Washington D.C. the focus is now on a married congressman who is chairman of an important committee overseeing defense spending. He is a rising star in his party until his beautiful young assistant with whom he has been carrying on a clandestine affair is suddenly found dead. Things get complicated when his old friend Washington Globe investigative reporter Cal McAffrey is assigned to track down the story and try to uncover the identity of the killer. With cub blogger Della Frye forced on him as a partner the two journalists step into a government coverup that is much bigger than anyone could have imagined.
WHO’S IN IT?
Four days before production kicked off Brad Pitt dropped and Russell Crowe replaced him in the key reporter's role. It’s hard to imagine Pitt in this part since Russell Crowe disheveled-looking with long hair and about 30 pounds overweight owns it in his best performance since A Beautiful Mind. As his blog-savvy young partner Rachel McAdams firmly captures the essence of a determined but inexperienced young journalist in over her head. A sharp-tongued and feisty Helen Mirren is ideal as the newspaper boss more concerned with profits than integrity as she spouts out lines like “I don’t give a s--t about the rest of the story. We are going to press!” Ben Affleck also has his best screen outing in a while as the ambitious congressman Stephen Collins who gets caught with his pants down. A bevy of fine supporting turns include Robin Wright Penn as Collins’ unhappy wife; Jeff Daniels oily and smarmy as a conservative politician who knows more than he lets on and especially Jason Bateman stealing scenes as a slimy PR guy who provides some key details.
Not only does State of Play work well as a political thriller its pointed take on the failing state of newspapers and lax journalistic standards could not be more timely. Stunning widescreen cinematography and lavish sets add to the authenticity of a movie that in its best moments can be compared favorably with similar '70s classics like All the President's Men.
As the dense plot unfolds it gets a bit confusing trying to keep all the players straight particularly towards the end where you might need "State of Play for Dummies" just to follow it all.
A nail-biter beautifully staged by director Kevin MacDonald (Last King of Scotland) where Crowe plays a cat-and-mouse game in an underground garage with a mysterious armed suspect he has just confronted.
HOW MANY WRITERS DOES IT TAKE TO SCREW IN A LIGHT BULB?
Four major ones in this case. Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) Tony Gilroy (Duplicity Michael Clayton) Billy Ray (Breach) and an uncredited Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon The Queen) are the superstar team of scribes who each took a crack at whittling down a six-hour miniseries into a two-hour flick.
Look for Bateman and the art directors responsible for the massive newspaper office to turn up on the shortlist for next year’s Academy Awards.