Steve Martin as Stu Preissler
Jack Black as Brad Harris
Owen Wilson as Kenny Bostick
Rashida Jones as Carol
Anjelica Huston as Debi Shearwater
Jim Parsons as Crane
Rosamund Pike as Barbara
JoBeth Williams as Edith
Brian Dennehy as Martin Harris
Dianne Wiest as Marie Harris
Anthony Anderson as Bill Clemens
Tim Blake Nelson as Phil
Joel McHale as Skeeter Yablans
Kevin Pollak as Kendall
It’s a fact of life that human beings, and by human beings I mean mainly men, are extremely competitive. This is generally a good thing as it one of the evolutionary traits that put us at the top of the food chain to begin with. That basic fact of human life is visible in nearly everything we do from our obsession to sports to the founding idea of our modern economic models. There are likely few people who would say competition is a bad thing or that the drawbacks aren’t enough to keep it from being worthwhile.
So it’s nice when someone decides to challenge that impulse to challenge as being good in and of itself. It’s just that it would be nicer if it weren’t being challeneged very, very, very, very lightly as is the case in David Frankel’s (“The Devil Wears Prada”) “The Big Year.”
For those not in the birder know, a “Big Year” is an attempt by a single individual to see as many individual species of bird as they can within one area, such as the United States. An attempt such as the one by Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) which resulted in the world record for a Big Year. As everyone knows, once a record has been set it is inevitable for someone to want to try and break it. In Kenny’s case that means two someone’s, retired corporate CEO Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) and divorced computer programmer Brad Harris (Jack Black).
The three men each go about their quests in different ways, with different levels of support from their friends and family. Stu has all the resources a man could need to break the record and the unwavering support of his devoted wife (JoBeth Williams), but because of that he is not as cut throat as he was when he was a Wall Street titan. Not in the way Bostick is, who is so paranoid about losing his title he will do almost anything to retain it. Not even in the way Brad is, who has no resources and not much else in his life but is unrelenting in his quest to top Bostick.
On the one hand, Frankel and screenwriter Howard Franklin have mercifully kept from turning their characters into caricatures created for simple physical gags and laughs. Each has their own real life drama to go through, be it Bostick and his wife’s (Rosamund Pike) attempt to have a child or Brad having to decide if the record is worth not being around when his father (Brian Dennehy) has a heart attack. And each approaches their problems and their situation as real people do. Most of the time.
This is most notable whenever Brad appears as being the straight man is not usually something Jack Black has been given to do. He can definitely do it even if earnestness isn’t usually his best trait. He’s not the only one, however, as most of the characters end up in the same spot with the rare exception of Owen Wilson.
Which gives us our other hand. That same reality that keeps “The Big Year” from becoming a cartoon also keeps it from becoming alive. While Kenny and Brad and Stu are recognizable as real people with generally real problems, that means they are not always funny. And while they are in what seems to be a comedy, the attempt to keep it light makes sure there is not enough drama to make the final result stand out.
“The Big Year” isn’t a particularly bad film, just not a particularly memorable one. For all that it genuinely wants to say about competition, particularly as the race gets close and everyone has to wonder how much they want the crown, it is not at all willing to go out on a limb and take the kind of chance needed to actually say something.
For all that it wants to have something to say, “The Big Year” can’t get out of the starting blocks. It just doesn’t have the heart to win.