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.
I could probably come up with a better pan for Mr. Popper’s Penguins than “flightless and foul ” but that would entail expending more creative energy on the film than its makers did. Directed by Mark Waters (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past The Spiderwick Chronicles) and based on a 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater it is so empty and artificial and formulaic that if I didn’t know better I would have pegged it as a very cynical parody or perhaps a film within a film about some desperate mafioso’s questionable money-laundering scheme.
Jim Carrey looking tired and perhaps a little embarrassed plays the title role of an arrogant self-absorbed businessman who is taught a variety of valuable life lessons by a sextet of penguins. The penguins bequeathed to Mr. Popper in his neglectful father’s last will and testament each exhibit a single personality trait which immediately makes them more emotionally complex than the film in which they appear.
They’re assigned names accordingly: there’s Captain the leader Loudy the screamer Lovey the hugger Bitey the biter Stinkey the farter and Nimrod the stumbler. I only wish this functional naming scheme were extended to the rest of the characters in the film – i.e. Clark Gregg is Nemesis Carla Gugino is Motivation Angela Lansbury is Conscience and so on. If anything it would have allowed the filmmakers to excise a healthy chunk of dialogue which in the case of Mr. Popper’s Penguins only exists to punish the brain.
The film boasts three credited screenwriters among its crew. Though I’m not privy to each writer’s specific contributions I imagine their duties were divided in roughly this fashion: 1) scrub the story of all imagination or wit; 2) remove any deviations from pat Hollywood formula; and 3) cram it with as much toilet humor as the MPAA will allow in a PG film. You’d think that a single writer could have mangled a beloved
children's book just as convincingly but you’d be wrong: This kind of
debacle requires a team effort.
In a screen adaptation of the Philip Roth novella The Dying Animal this highly charged sexual drama comes to the fore as its central character wraps himself around a dangerous life-changing relationship. David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is an engaging very successful professor whose personal life he closely controls--never letting commitment get in the way and keeping the women in his life at arm’s distance. Although he can go on The Charlie Rose Show and charm with the best of them his emotional needs have remained hidden to him--that is until a gorgeous young student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) enters his classroom and rocks his tightly monitored world. Suddenly everything he thought he knew about his own human nature and longings are thrown out the window. He becomes obsessively involved with the much younger Consuela--SO obsessive in fact that his jealousy and possessiveness take their toll and eventually drive her away. Drowning his sorrows in other personal matters he will discover that this relationship is not quite over and the woman who haunts his dreams is going to come back into his life with an urgency neither one could possibly have imagined. Kingsley an Oscar winner over a quarter of a century ago for Gandhi has perhaps his richest role since then as professor Kepesh a man overwhelmed by desire he never knew he was capable of. It’s certainly unusual and definitely refreshing to see an actor who is just hitting retirement age get such a full-bodied and sexual role. Let’s face it Kingsley is no Brad Pitt but he certainly represents a group of men who are still in the game and even just discovering their full romantic potential in the autumn of life. Of course what red blooded American male wouldn’t fall hook line and sinker for the rapturous Cruz. Her Consuela is a woman in complete charge of her being--until events out of her control bring out the vulnerability. Without revealing plot spoilers there are two distinct parts to this complicated and fascinating performance and Cruz effortlessly nails both. The supporting cast is also top notch with Patricia Clarkson a particular standout as Carolyn the professor’s long-time lover who finds her mutually convenient affair threatened for the first time. There’s also Dennis Hopper as a distinguished poet and David’s good friend; Deborah Harry as Hopper’s long-suffering wife; and Peter Sarsgaard as the prof’s distant son are all fine in the exceptionally well-cast film. Spanish director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) brings an intimacy and strong woman’s touch to a story that might have had a different spin if directed by a man. After all how many Hollywood films have we seen with 60 and 70 year-old male stars cast opposite much younger actresses that fail to examine the irony of those pairings? This relationship is shown warts and all in a much more emotionally complicated way than most films dare. Emphasis on Clarkson’s spurned lover also adds a nice touch and we can completely empathize with this smart sexually alive woman whose main sin is her age similarity with the man she has slept with hassle free for over 20 years. A major studio would never touch a story like this that deals with the sexual proclivities of mature adults unless it had something to do with Batman and Catwoman. We can thank Coixet’s sharply detailed work behind the camera particularly in intimate bedroom conversations and a smart adaptation by Nicholas Meyer which gets right to the heart of Roth’s ultimately heartbreaking story. Those expecting something along the raunchy lines of the aging author’s Portnoy’s Complaint will be in for a surprise with this independently made contemplative beautifully crafted and acted romantic drama. Finally a film for grown ups.
Even if the some of the images are redone the story remains true to form--and fits surprisingly well in this savvy 21st century. As it goes an alien botanist visiting Earth to collect some vegetation gets stranded when his space friends have to make a hasty exit before getting caught by the big bad American scientists lead by "Keys" (Peter Coyote known as such because of the keys jangling from his belt). E.T. ends up befriending an 11-year-old boy Elliot (Henry Thomas) and his siblings older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and discovers such earthly pleasures as beer TV and Reese's Pieces. Yet as much fun as he's having all E.T. really wants to do is go home and soon it becomes a matter of life or death for the little alien to get there as quickly as he can. Elliot who has now bonded with his new friend tries as hard as he can to help E.T. get home before its too late--and before Keys and his group get hold of him.
Seeing the young actors on the big screen again especially Thomas and Barrymore and knowing how they've grown up makes the film that much more fun to watch. When the film came out in 1982 Thomas was a true find. His Elliot was full of energy and had a fresh unassuming quality which inspired many young actors after him (i.e. Haley Joel Osment). Interestingly in his adult career Thomas has laid low with subdued roles in such fare as the HBO movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial. Although he is a talented indie actor he has veered away from that excitable little boy we remember. Of course we all know how Ms. Barrymore turned out becoming one of Hollywood's leading actresses--but as Gertie Barrymore was unbelievably adorable with just a hint of how precocious she actually was. The rest of the cast did their jobs just as admirably especially Dee Wallace Stone as Elliot's mom who as a single mom wounded by a divorce still managed to make dinner wipe tears and understand how her son could become attached to an alien.
Why mess with a classic? Well if you're a perfectionist like director Steven Spielberg you want to make the 20th anniversary of one of your most beloved films to be the best that it can be. Honestly when watching the film again it's hard to pinpoint where the changes were made since they blend seamlessly with the rest of the film. Apparently 140 shots were reworked E.T. got a more friendly makeover and a few never-before-seen scenes were added in (like the great scene where E.T. falls into a bathtub of water). True E.T. looks even more lifelike and you can tell the spaceship had a few more bells and whistles on it but it doesn't really matter. The film is a pure gem proving once again what an incredible visionary Spielberg truly is.