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.
Tucked away between shiny modern skyscrapers quirky old-fashioned Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a toy store literally like no other. Step inside and a sock monkey might give you a hug--or a fire engine might appear out of nowhere. That's because the store is imbued with the enthusiasm and magical childlike wonder of its owner: frizzy-haired 243-year-old dynamo Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman). When Magorium decides it's time to move on his designated heir self-doubting store manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) isn't the only one who objects. The store itself throws a fit sulking and brooding and hurling toys at unwitting customers. It's up to Mahoney--with the help of stuffy accountant Henry "Mutant" Weston (Jason Bateman) and eager young store clerk Eric (Zach Mills)--to discover the best way to live up to Magorium's legacy. The movie's most pleasant surprise is Hoffman's charming performance. He could have followed in Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp's footsteps and made Magorium a fey Willy Wonka-like sprite. Instead Magorium is an original a mile-a-minute chatterbox who uses big words takes delight in the extraordinary and never stops smiling at life. And the calm gentle demeanor he brings to Magorium's farewell scenes with Mahoney will make a potentially tough plot twist a lot easier on kids. Speaking of Mahoney Portman is at her best in the moments that call for wry humor and Puck-ish mischief; the more earnest the script asks her to be the less interesting her character gets. Bateman is underused as the straight man (his lone lapse into silliness is a high point in the movie) but Mills is wholly endearing as wiser-than-his years Eric. With so much going for it why isn't Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium more magical? It's hard to say; perhaps it's something to do with the fact that the characters seem to talk about magic more than they actually interact with it. Or that despite all of said magic Mr. Magorium and his store never really do anything that you wouldn't expect of an eccentric bicentarian living in the ultimate funhouse. Writer/director Zach Helm gives viewers plenty to ooh and aah at (the set design is wonderful) but his story is never quite unusual or unexpected enough to transcend "cute" and "sweet" and reach "classic." All of that said with Hoffman in fine form and so many fabulous toys bouncing around the screen kids are likely to be delighted (and clamoring to add to their Christmas lists...)