Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Big Year (2011)

I don't remember how or why The Big Year secured a spot on my Netflix queue. The last Jack Black movie I sought out was the terrible Year One from 2009 (mostly because of Harold Ramis, Michael Cera, and a hell of a supporting cast). Owen Wilson? 2007's The Darjeeling Limited (unless you count animation, which I don't particularly, but I've seen The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Cars 2). And for Steve Martin I have to go back to 2005's Shopgirl. Overwhelmingly, these three men have acted in a lot of crap in the last ten years or so and the only one of whom I hold any active affection is Steve Martin. Given their recent works, my expectation for The Big Year was one of wackiness ensuing with lots of slapstick and comic misunderstanding and oh, so much contrivance. Clearly, that's what the critics thought. The critics read as though they are actively mad that Black, Martin, and Wilson weren't unleashed upon the material even though it doesn't take much research to find these same critics crapping all over these men for doing that in other films. Personally, I was ecstatic that that wasn't the case.

It's very rare that I find my self so actively engaged with characters and their lives and pursuits. The Big Year revolves around an oddball curiosity, birders trying to see the most species of bird in one year (the titular Big Year), but uses the scenario as a reflection through which the characters come to understand their lives. If the three stars were given free reign as critics have suggested, the characters would become caricatures. They would lose the nuance that serves the film so well and the viewer would question why, say, Steve Martin's wife is so supportive of his pursuit. It would shift passion to psychosis. It's amazing to me that critics couldn't see that the actors were serving the characters and not themselves.

The movie is billed as a comedy, and it's humorous, but it's not overtly funny. There's some drama, but the stakes are rarely that high. The Big Year is simply and affable and engaging story told exceedingly well. In fact, even though I loved it, I still struggle to convince myself that it's a movie I should own (partially because I would hate to taint my initial reaction, though I think it would stand) and I can't imagine forcing my friends to watch it as I did Lake Mungo (or any other multitude of films). The Big Year is a perfectly realized, mature story about people pursuing a passion, that happens to be competitive, in a decent way. I haven't felt this good after a movie since my first viewing of Role Models in 2008.

And before I end this, here's a partial listing the supporting cast: Rosamund Pike, Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy(!), Anthony Anderson, Anjelica Huston, Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson, Steven Weber, Corbin Bernsen(!), and John Cleese supplying a bit of historical voiceover*.

*Jack Black narrates the rest of the movie and is my only knock against The Big Year. When will this blight upon movies end?