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Blu-ray Review: The Big Year

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The Big Year stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black as bird watchers on a quest to spot the most species of birds in North America in a single year. This informal competition amongst birders is known as a “Big Year.” The pursuit the three men embark on serves as both an escape from real life and as an allegory for it. The men are all dissatisfied with their lives in some way. Being the best at something is their way of filling the void. Each of them has the need to accomplish something and to be recognized for it. It’s an easy concept to relate to. Unfortunately, The Big Year fails to generate any real passion for its subject. It’s an interesting premise with a great trio of comedic actors, but the film is neither truly poignant nor consistently funny.

Wilson plays Kenny Bostick, the reigning Big Year champion. Bostick is obsessed with his record, but pretends not to be. He acts like there are more important things in his life, like his wife (Rosamund Pike), and his expensive house. His wife is desperate to have a baby, but Bostick keeps putting it off. He is clearly concerned someone will break his record and steal his glory. The only way he can keep someone else from breaking his record is to break it himself. So while his wife remodels their house and visits fertility clinics, he jets around the country looking for birds, all the while telling her he’ll be home soon.

Martin plays Stu Preissler, a CEO on the verge of retirement, who has his own Big Year obsession. Unlike Bostick, Preissler is happily married, a proud father, and a soon to be grandfather. He runs a successful company, leading a pretty good life overall. His wife (JoBeth Williams) is supportive and understanding of his birding hobby. What Preissler seems to be lacking in life is excitement. His life has gone according to plan: good job, great family. But he wants to do something a little different. The wrench in the works is his company is on the verge of collapse and his quest is constantly interrupted by frantic phone calls begging for his help.

The most dynamic character of the bunch is Jack Black’s Brad Harris. Harris is a tech guy at a nuclear power plant who is extremely dissatisfied with his life. He is divorced and living with his disapproving father (Brian Dennehy) and overly understanding mother (Dianne Wiest). Harris is the true bird lover of the group. He feels like winning a Big Year would provide redemption for his failures. Harris is the only character whose pursuit of bird spotting resonates emotionally. His character has a real reason for wanting to win. He is also the underdog of the competition because he has very little money and experience, unlike Bostick and Preissler.

The unfortunate thing about The Big Year is its lack of reverence for its subject. We see a lot of birds in the movie, but we learn very little about the sport of birding. It’s hard to understand why any of this means so much to the people doing it, with the exception of Brad Harris. Aside from some poignant moments of friendship between Harris and Preissler, the rest of the movie feels empty. The first half is kind of fun as the men embark on their respective journeys. There is a lot of scenery to look at, and at first seeing all the different species of birds is cool. The movie fails to build a very compelling story after that. Another downfall is that Bostick and Preissler are not very likeable characters. While this was probably intentional for Bostick, I don’t think it was for Preissler. Preissler is meant to possess some wisdom, and serves as a surrogate father to Harris. The downside is that Preissler extends none of this wisdom to the two managers at his company (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollack) who desperately need his help. I think we are supposed to understand why Preissler loses interest in his corporate life, but what was probably intended to be a heart-warming show of independence seems cold-hearted and callous instead.

Overall The Big Year is not a terrible movie. It’s easy to watch and it’s fun to see Martin, Wilson, and Black in a movie together. It’s unfortunate the film did not capitalize on their comedic abilities. Though intended as a comedy, The Big Year is definitely lacking in laughs. What’s missing is any real depth. The filmmakers seemed to be aiming for something more than brainless entertainment, but it fails to explore the characters and their obsession. Wilson’s character is particularly one dimensional, while Martin’s character is a little bland. Black’s character is the only one with a fully realized story arc, and even that falls into several movie clichés. In the end The Big Year’s great cast can’t save the movie from being a real disappointment.

The 1080p AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer is kind of a mixed bag. Framed at 2.35:1, the picture is at times an excellent representation of the different environments in which the movie was shot. The heavily forested areas look stunning at times, with lots of details in the foliage. The Alaskan-based segments, on the other hand, don’t seem to have the same level of distinct detail. While the footage never looks bad, it just has a slightly softer look to it that fails to measure up to the best visuals. Close-ups of actors are generally high in detail, with natural skin tones. Overall The Big Year looks consistently good, and occasionally great, in high definition.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly fine for this type of non-action-oriented comedy. The dialogue is easy to understand. Music is well balanced and focused mostly in the right and left channels. There are plenty of subtle effects that create a nicely atmospheric sound field. When Bostick and Harris are flying on a small plane to Alaska, the rumbling engines give a nice kick to the subwoofer. Many scenes in the outdoors, with the characters surrounded by nature, have lots of rustling and chirping coming from the surrounds. It’s not overly impressive, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Special features include a fairly interesting featurette, “The Big Migration,” that focuses on all the different locations the production traveled to. The seventeen minutes of deleted scenes will only be of real interest to big fans of the movie. A relationship between Jack Black and Rashida Jones (who is barely in the actual movie) is explored a little more in a few deleted scenes. A five minute gag reel features the usual flubbed lines and other assorted mishaps.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.