out of Five
Running time: 100
Engaging, low-key comedy enlivened by likeable characters, strong performances and an original central premise, though it's slightly undone by an overwritten script and a grating, ever-present voiceover.
What's it all about?
Directed by David Frankel, The Big Year is loosely based on the non-fiction book by Mark Obmascik and centres on The Big Year, a year-long competition to spot the most species of birds in North America. Owen Wilson stars as reigning champion Kenny Bostick, who's obsessed with maintaining his record and enters the competition “just to set the pace,” despite the fact that it causes serious friction with his wife Jess (Rosamund Pike), who is undergoing fertility treatment.
Kenny's two main competitors are office worker Brad Harris (Jack Black, whose character narrates the film) and wealthy businessman Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), whose devotion to the competition creates serious problems for his two lawyers (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak), who are negotiating an important deal for the future of Stu's company. So when Stu and Brad realise that Bostick will do anything to win the competition, they team up to see if they can help each other to victory.
Jack Black reigns in his usual tendency towards mugging, slapstick and over-acting and delivers a likeable, warm-hearted performance as Brad, while Wilson is equally good as Bostick and his naturally charming screen persona goes a long way towards softening some of his character's less sympathetic moments. Martin is on good form too and there's strong support from Rosamund Pike, Rashida Jones (as Brad's bird-calling love interest), Anjelica Huston (as a boat-owner who's taken a dislike to Bostick) and particularly Brian Dennehy and Dianne Wiest as Brad's parents.
The premise of the film is both original and engaging, while real-life “birders” (they don't like being called bird-watchers, apparently) will have a field day with all the wildlife on display. The film is also beautifully shot, with cinematographer Lawrence Sher making strong use of the wide variety of authentic locations.
The main problem is that the script is painfully overwritten in places, with Black's grating, ever-present voiceover spelling everything out rather than allowing the audience to pick things up for themselves (although the scenes between Black and Dennehy are somehow spared the voiceover treatment and are genuinely moving as a result). Similarly, the film settles for gently amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, though at least it never resorts to gross-out gags or embarrassing slapstick (a real possibility, given the potential for bird poo moments).
Despite its clunkily overwritten script, The Big Year remains both watchable and entertaining thanks to likeable characters, strong performances and an engaging premise.