The existence of The Big Year is a sign of something diseased and possibly irreparable in our society. Watching it I felt, for the first time this month, a distinct urge to occupy something. This is a movie that feels like it was made as a gesture of scornful confidence in the bovine acquiescence of the American audience: "These people are so stupid and docile that we can literally show them pictures of movie stars watching birds for nearly two hours and they will not mind." Halfway through the comedy, I began to laugh for the first time—a kind of hysterical, disgusted cackling, as I realized we had been observing two minutes of people riding bicycles over tundra in search of a bird, then turning their bicycles around and riding in the other direction because the bird had moved, and this was supposed to be a galvanizing adventure. You could tell because there was a Coldplay song blaring. This is why Robespierre started the public executions.
By now, it should not come as a news bulletin that Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin are talented comedians who are also shameless paycheck whores. Black is debased the most by The Big Year: Denuded of all mischief and masculinity, he seems like a Hummel figurine crafted from Play-Doh. His heartburning arc—he makes a friend (Martin), he talks to a girl (Rashida Jones), he connects with his father (Brian Dennehy, channeling a fraction of my disgust)—is molded around a calendar-spanning contest to see who can identify the most avian species by traveling across the planet. His rival, incarnated with a bare minimum of attendance by Wilson, is a record-holder named Kenny Bostick. He is referenced with envy by his competitors simply as "Bostick"—and it is a measure of how emotionally indifferent this movie is that, in the crucial moment when he abandons his wife (Rosamund Pike) at a fertility clinic to seek an owl, she puts her head in her hands and moans, "Bostick."
Like many Hollywood movies about jobs and hobbies—and especially movies helmed by director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me)—The Big Year upholds the strange platitude that there are far more important things in the world than the thing the movie is ostensibly about. Birding does not really matter. What matters is family. Well then, why not make a movie about these people's fucking families? The Big Year gives the impression of having been assembled by wealthy, isolated robots trying to imagine human contact. This may not be so far from the truth. PG