There was a time when a new comedy starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson would’ve been, well, kind of a big deal. Sadly, those days seem to have passed. Somewhere in between Gulliver’s Travels, The Pink Panther 2, and Drillbit Taylor, these formerly reliable comic actors stopped drawing massive crowds and started churning out dreck, and– as a result– new projects by this formerly popular trio stopped being anything to get excited over. Things had gotten so bad, in fact, that when David Frankel’s The Big Year suddenly arrived in theaters last year, many filmgoers were stunned to be hearing about the film for the very first time. Where had The Big Year come from, and what did it want with us? Frankel’s flick was largely ignored by audiences during the three-and-a-half days it was in theaters, but now it’s arrived on Blu-ray, and we’re free to discover what kind of movie The Big Year really is. Is it a comeback vehicle for all involved, a reason to get excited about Black, Martin, and Wilson again? Or just another mediocre entry in all of their filmographies? Read on to find out, folks.
Here’s what you need to know before we go any further: I’m a fan of all three of these guys. At one time or another, Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson have all turned in excellent performances in classic comedies. They’re all capable, they’ve all proved to be brilliant at what they do (Martin tends to be the cerebral one, Black’s the frantic one, and Wilson’s the low-key one), and they will all surely go on to make a number of great films between now and the point where their careers wrap up for good. I’m sure of it.
Unfortunately, The Big Year is not one of those “great films”.
It is, in the end, a massively mediocre, entirely forgettable and totally inoffensive comedy that I’m willing to bet the entire cast will forgot they even made in a few years’ time. That’s how slight this thing is. It’s serviceable. It’s a placeholder. Everything—from the script to the editing to the performances and the wardrobe choices—is “just OK”.
One could make the argument that this is actually worse than a flat-out terrible film, but I’d disagree, and not just because that’s precisely the sort of cynical thinking that I’ve promised to try and avoid this year (this seemed to be the only possible New Year’s Resolution I might actually stick with): there are moments in The Big Year where the cast delivers a particularly funny line-reading or scene– moments that elevate it to “above-average” territory–and there are a number of guest (or supporting) appearances here (Joel McHale, Kevin Pollak, Rashida Jones, Brian Dennehy) that I enjoyed seeing. So, it ain’t a total wash. It just a shame that it’s so pedestrian.
Here’s the setup: Wilson, Black, and Martin each play dudes who have decided to have a “big year”. If—like me—you’re unfamiliar with this term, it probably means that you’re not an avid birdwatcher (yeah, that’s right: The Big Year is about birdwatching). In the birdwatching community, a “big year” is a year-long contest to see who can, uh, watch the most birds. The system operates on the “old school honor system” (as Martin informs us early on), with everyone involved reporting back with claims—and, if they’re lucky, photos that will back up their claims—concerning what birds they spotted. The person who witnesses the most birds wins, obviously.
Now, this isn’t the worst setup for a comedy I’ve ever heard, but it’s certainly far from the best. This is the kind of flick where you’re going to have to set aside any logic-related questions you might have (such as, “Why doesn’t the ‘sneaky’ birdwatcher just lie his way to the prize?”) and just go with what Frankel’s put onscreen…which, for the most part, is Black, Martin, and Wilson traipsing around some really amazing-looking locales trying to spot birds. They’re friendly with one another (some moreso than less), but they’re also rivals, so there’s a fair amount of trickery and shenanigans taking place here. I can see why someone would read the script and think, “Oh, yeah, this’ll be funny”.
But the thing just doesn’t ever—if I can borrow a bird-related pun—take off. Director David Frankel has two really big hits on his resume: Marley and Me and The Devil Wears Prada. One of those films was a lot better than I expected it to be, while the other was precisely as saccharine as I feared it would be. This one falls somewhere in-between those two.
I didn’t hate The Big Year, I didn’t love it, I didn’t really have any strong feelings about it. It was there, on my TV, it happened, and then it stopped. And here we are. In honor of the right-up-the-middle quality and funniness of the film, I’m giving it a right-up-the-middle score of 2.5. Huzzah.
Here’s where this package really shines. Obviously, it’s in 1080p, and—obviously—that’s gonna look just as good as it always does (or doesn’t) on your particular setup. But Frankel’s captured some really great settings, landscapes, and digital imagery (read: CGI birds doing CGI birdlike things) here that looked absolutely incredible on my setup. Like, seriously impressive. I expected many things when I plugged The Big Year into my Blu-ray player, but I confess that one of the sharpest video presentations in recent memory (which no shortage of breathtaking vistas) was not amongst them.
The colors pop vibrantly, the 2.35: 1 landscape shots—generally with a character or three in the foreground and something awe-inspiring behind them, out in the distance—were genuinely breathtaking, and there’s even a number of cool little pop-up effects that factor into the presentation (bird-counts for each of the characters, little notes regarding their surroundings, and so on). Detail is strong, colors are bright, blacks are deep, and landscapes are glorious: it’s seriously good stuff. Impressive.
The audio’s above-average, but standard for 20th Century Fox Blu-rays: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (or English Descriptive Audio in 5.1 Dolby Digital, if that’s your thing; there’s also a French option for our Francophile birdwatching enthusiast friends) that comes through loud and clear. The sound’s just as crisp as the picture, and the moments where songs kick in on the soundtrack will fill your surround sound out nicely. I would’ve preferred something other than Coldplay, sure, but who am I to judge?
There are two versions of the film here, something the packaging won’t let you forget any time soon. The difference? Three minutes’ worth of footage. I’ll cop to the fact that I didn’t sit through this twice in order to figure out where that three minutes came from (or went to, depending on how you wanna think about it), but instead I watched the extended version. There are a number of deleted scenes here, as well (all of which keep up the tradition of “deleted scenes” being a nice way of saying “scenes that probably shouldn’t have been shot in the first place), along with a gag reel and a featurette about birdwatching/the film called The Big Migration. It’s all very standard.
Here’s something else worth mentioning: I learned a tremendous amount about birdwatching while watching this flick. There are times when The Big Year feels like a feature-length advertisement for birdwatching hobbyists, and—truth be told—the film does manage to make something I’d expect to be very, very boring look…well, kinda fun. Obviously, the real thing’s not as madcap or hijinks-packed as what’s presented here, but even if you’re not interested in birdwatching you’ll pick up a few interesting facts about the hobby (not to mention its subjects) while watching the film.
In other words: I know precisely three times as much about birdwatching after watching The Big Year as I did before watching it (to be fair, though, I knew literally nothing about birdwatching before watching The Big Year).
In the end, though, that’s not reason enough to recommend the film. The script’s mediocre, the final product’s mediocre, the performances are all mediocre, the extras are mediocre…hell, the only thing(s) in this entire package that really shine are the video quality, the vistas that Frankel puts on film, and some of the audio. Oh, and John Cleese’s narration ain’t bad. But none of those things—alone or as group—are worth dropping $20-some-odd bucks for this movie (possible exception: you’re an avid birdwatcher, in which case you’ll probably enjoy the hell outta this one).
Order The Big Year on Blu-ray!