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.
Supermom Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her geneticist husband Norman (Harrison Ford) are adapting to their only daughter's departure to college when Claire begins sensing an unearthly presence in the couple's lakeside Vermont dream home. Is she losing her marbles or is that the spirit of a beautiful young woman she keeps glimpsing? To say any more (as the too-explicit ad campaign does) would spoil some delicious twists.
The toplining Ford is his usual solid self in a role that plays cleverly on his familiar persona but the picture is Pfeiffer's from beginning to end. She delivers one of her most pleasing performances nicely disarming audience doubts about the story's supernatural elements with some judicious eye-rolling and embarrassed frowning -- her character is so painfully aware that what she's saying sounds crazy how can we possibly doubt her? Among the low-key supporting cast Joe Morton ("Terminator 2") stands out as an amiably down-to-earth psychiatrist.
Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") takes Clark Gregg's highly derivative haunted house script and pours on the Hitchcockian visual flourishes unapologetically pilfering from the Master's "Rear Window" and "Psycho " among others. His extended homage results in scene after scene of almost unbearable tension as the audience waits for the next shock. There's some clunky storytelling in the first section but the all-suspense second half more than makes up for it with some classic work including what seems destined to go down in movie history as "the bathtub scene."