The Big Year


The Big Year

Making movies is for the birds

(2011) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, John Cleese (voice), Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Paul Campbell, Cindy Busby, Anjelica Huston, Jim Parsons, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Al Roker, Steven Weber, Corbin Bernsen. Directed by David Frankel

 

All of us want to leave a mark in some form or another; not necessarily as celebrities but in our own small way we want to accomplish something special, something we can be proud of. Something that says “I was here. I did this. I meant something.” It’s not always an easy thing and often we have to overcome obstacles we never could have anticipated.

In the world of bird watching, birders have a kind of Heisman Trophy that they go after – it’s called, informally, a Big Year and it means essentially spotting as many birds as possible in a calendar year. It requires an insane amount of dedication and not a little expense. The all-time champion is Kenny Bostick (Wilson) who holds the mark at 723 separate species of birds.

He has become bored and restless resting on his laurels. He’s made the decision to tackle another big year, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife (Pike) who is much more eager to start a family. Still, she recognizes he needs one last adventure and gives it to him, but not without consequence.

Brad Harris (Black) is a computer programmer who is divorced and feeling less sure of who he is. He knows he loves birding and is pretty good at it but has to save for quite a while to mount up the resources in order to tackle something like a Big Year. His parents (Wiest, Dennehy) are less than enthusiastic but mom manages to mount up some supportiveness while his cardiac patient dad is less tolerant.

Stu Preissler (Martin) is a workaholic CEO on the verge of retiring and he knows what he wants to do with the first year of his retirement – a Big Year. His wife (Williams) is a little less sanguine about it with a grandchild on the way but Stu insists that he can do both. However, his company is a bit jittery about his departure and a new merger that is going to save the day is dangling by a thread and Stu’s touch is needed.

The three run into each other in the field and none wants to tip their hand that they are going after a Big Year but soon it becomes obvious that they all are after the same thing. While Kenny will do anything and everything to safeguard his record – and allow himself to shatter it – Stu and Brad quickly realize that the only defense against Kenny is to team up. But who will be the winner at the end of the year?

I hadn’t expected much from the film, having understood that it was a critical and box office failure but I was pleasantly surprised. The three leads are all individually engaging and all of them restrain their normal onscreen personas so that none of them is overwhelming (Black particularly who can be overbearing in some of his roles). Here they all are charismatic but sweet-natured – even Wilson’s character, who can be a bastard, isn’t all bad.

Black gets to have a nice field romance with a fellow birder (Jones) which helps add a romantic element to the movie; all of the leads are at different places in their relationships with Stu’s being more centered, Kenny’s being on the edge of disaster and Brad’s just beginning. It illustrates the role of our partners in our lives quite nicely too.

The cinematography is quite nice, with enough bird shots to do a nature film proud (not all of the footage here was authentic – some was spliced in from other movies in order to bring enough different species of birds on screen). Sure, there are some bits that stretch the believability quotient a bit but none to the breaking point.

The leads aren’t the only reason to see the film. As you can see in the cast list there is a pretty impressive collection of talent, some on for only a scene or two (like Huston as a crusty boat captain) but it isn’t stunt casting so much. We aren’t playing “spot the celebrity” although it makes a nice counterpoint to the bird spotting (and a fun game to play for those watching the second time – see how many birds YOU can spot).

This was a movie that came out with a bit of fanfare, considering the star power in the leads and then exited theaters quickly. For whatever reason it didn’t connect with audiences who probably thought a movie about bird watching would be boring. The point is however that this isn’t strictly about bird watching. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and living. Getting off the couch and into something, anything, that sparks our passion. You can’t really complain about a movie that advocates that.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing heart. Some interesting bird-watching facts. Nice performances from the leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit too obsessive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are more than a few bad words and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the bird sightings from the winner of the competition are shown over the closing credits and yes, every one of them is a different species of bird, although they weren’t all spotted by the same person in this case.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Nothing on the DVD but the Blu-Ray has a gag reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on a $41M production budget; there is no way to call this other than an unmitigated flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Butter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cloud Atlas

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My One and Only


My One and Only

Renee Zellweger is courted by yet another unsuitable suitor.

(Freestyle Releasing) Renee Zellweger, Logan Lerman, Kevin Bacon, Chris Noth, Troy Garity, David Koechner, Eric McCormack, Steven Weber, Nick Stahl, Mark Rendall, Robin Weigert. Directed by Richard Loncraine

The road to growing up can often be a treacherous and confusing one, even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes that road can take you to some really unexpected places and unexpected conclusions.

Ann Devereaux (Zellweger) is a willful, beautiful blonde Southern belle who is the trophy wife of bandleader Danny Devereaux (Bacon). He is best known for the hit song “My One and Only” (not the Gershwin song, for those who know the standards well). He is also a philanderer, the kind of guy who simply can’t help himself when it comes to women. When Ann comes home to Danny “entertaining” a young lady – in her bed – it’s the last straw. She cleans out the safety deposit box, buys a baby blue Cadillac Coupe de Ville and hits the road, her sons George (Lerman) and Robbie (Rendall) in tow.

Robbie is a closet homosexual who dreams of Hollywood; George is a bit more grounded and yearns to write. Ann’s only aspiration is to find a rich husband to support her and her boys in the manner in which they’ve been accustomed to.

This doesn’t go very well. Each stop brings another loser, from Wallace McAllister (Weber), a businessman who is nearly broke and who rifles through Ann’s wallet and runs off while she’s in the restroom. Then there’s Col. Harlan Williams (Noth), a rabid anti-Communist military sort who has a streak of violence in him that isn’t compatible with Ann’s gentrified soul. Old flame Charlie (McCormack) makes no bones about it – Ann’s shelf life as a bombshell has expired, and she is competing with younger women for the same scraps. This leads to a misunderstanding that gets Ann arrested.

Nonetheless, she perseveres, even though George outwardly doubts her decision making and making it clear he wants to go back to his dad, who is less than enthusiastic about taking him. Ann then determines to work for a living, but after disastrous attempts at waitressing and sales, Ann finally meets a paint retail tycoon named Bill Massey (Koechner) who looks to be the most promising suitor yet, but even that doesn’t work out as planned.

The movie is loosely based on the life of actor George Hamilton, who is as well known for his tan and his tango these days as he is for his acting career (he’s also the executive producer of the movie). While it doesn’t give you insight into his acting, the movie will at least give you some insight into the man.

The movie has a bit of a split personality, in a good way. The first part of the movie really belongs to Zellweger, and she carries it pretty well. Nobody does plucky, ditzy blonde quite as well as Zellweger (see the Bridget Jones movies, although Lisa Kudrow does nearly as well on “Friends”), and she captivates the screen throughout. Her Ann Devereaux is brave and terminally cheerful, but with a hint of diva in the background. It must have been a fun role to play and you can see Zellweger enjoying herself.

The second half is Lerman’s, and while his story is a bit more complex, he doesn’t quite rise to the challenge but neither does he fail utterly. Instead, he delivers a solid but unspectacular job that doesn’t measure up to the luminescent performance of Zellweger. Each of the suitors have their own charms, although Koechner surprisingly does the most memorable work here as the troubled tycoon. Some of his scenes have a poignancy that elevates the movie quite a bit, as well as the comic timing Koechner is better known for.

Loncraine does a really nice job of evoking the 50s; the setting lives and breathes in his capable hands instead of being something of a distraction as period pieces often are. This is an era that feels lived in, from the posh penthouses of Manhattan to the grubby motels on Route 66. While this is ostensibly a comedy (and there are some funny portions to it), the truth is the dramatic portions work better; you get the feeling Loncraine was going for a bit of a screwball feel (one review likened it to the work of Preston Sturges, which is a dead on observation).

This got a very limited release when it came out and largely flew under the radar. It deserves better; there are some very fine performances and some nice moments, enough to make this a solid recommendation. Check it out on cable or at your local home video emporium; you’ll be glad you did.

WHY RENT THIS: Lerman does a credible job, while Koechner is surprisingly effective. The era is nicely evoked. Zellweger is excellent as the fading bombshell past her prime.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tries too hard to be a screwball comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some sexuality here and there; nothing you should be ashamed of showing to a 13-year-old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to Merv Griffith, who helped Hamilton develop the project and shepherded it through filming, but didn’t live to see it completed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Lorna’s Silence

The Amateurs


The Amateurs

Jeff Bridges goes on a junk food binge while Patrick Fugit captures it on video for the tabloid shows.

(First Look) Jeff Bridges, Ted Danson, Lauren Graham, Joe Pantoliano, Jeanne Tripplehorn, William Fichtner, Patrick Fugit, Tim Blake Nelson, Glenne Headly, Steven Weber, Brad Garrett, Isaiah Washington, Eileen Brennan. Directed by Michael Traeger

It is a human need to feel like one has accomplished something. Success breeds self-confidence; the lack thereof breeds its opposite.

Andy Sargentee (Bridges) is one of the latter. He has gone through scheme after scheme with a spectacular lack of success. His wife Thelma (Tripplehorn) has divorced him and remarried Howard (Weber), a millionaire. His son is understandably impressed by his new father-in-law but he still loves Andy for who he is. Love is one thing, however; respect is another.

Andy feels like he has to do something to get his son’s respect. But what to do? He ruminates for several days in a local tavern, his friends and neighbors, knowing Andy’s penchant for harebrained schemes, steer well clear as best they can. At last, Andy hits on an idea: porn. Not only that, amateur porn. It generates billions of dollars in revenue on the internet; why can’t the good townsfolk of Butterface Fields grab a slice of that tasty pie?

Of course, talking about it is one thing. Assembling a cast and crew is quite another. Most of Andy’s buddies share a distinct tinge of loser in their make-up, but all are game and are all on board. Some Idiot (Pantoliano) whose name is…well, it’s too much to go into right here but trust me, it’s apt…lobbies for and is made the writer/director of the budding skinflick. Then there’s Otis (Fichtner) who wants to feel a part of the movie but doesn’t want to screw it up is given the executive producer title. And let us not forget Moose (Danson) who is gay and is blissfully unaware that everyone knows, and Barney (Nelson), Andy’s best friend who pines away for Helen (Headly); they are both producers. Their best asset, however, may be Emmett (Fugit), who works at the video store and has taken some filmmaking classes. So deeply has the bug bitten him that he carries a small videocamera wherever he goes, documenting everything.

However, the stumbling block is getting actors – particularly actresses. There is no shortage of willing male participants but there are few women in town who are – ahem – photogenic that are willing to be schtupped on camera in living color for the world to see. Even if they do get enough women to make the epic porno they have in mind, can these lifelong screw-ups pull it together to actually make the film?

First-time director Traeger has assembled an impressive cast, led by the redoubtable Bridges. This is a role that Bridges can play in his sleep and often has; Andy has a great deal in common with characters Bridges has played in The Big Lebowski and The Fisher King. He’s good-hearted and a little bit off the deep end. He is supported with some pretty impressive actors, all of whom ooze charm.

Charm is not what this movie is short on. What it is short on is laughs. I don’t have a problem with a movie relying on quirky characters for its humor but there is a dearth of truly funny moments and jokes, not a good sign for a comedy. Still, there is enough to make it through.

The narration of the movie tends to drag it down. Bridges is a charming enough narrator but the movie relies too heavily on it. I would have preferred less explanation and a little more action, to quote the King.

While the subject matter is certainly titillating, there’s little overt sex. It’s true that most of the film’s actresses, particularly those involved in the porno (Hedley, Melinda Dahl and the veteran Valerie Perrine, too long absent from the big screen) are easy enough on the eyes, there’s no nudity to speak of (except that which is implied).

I have to admit that the film’s charm won me over. I know the small town with the eccentric citizens is a bit of a hoary cliché, but when it is done well – as it is here – it can be a very entertaining conceit. While the movie is far from perfect, I enjoyed my visit to Butterface Fields and wouldn’t mind a return visit.

WHY RENT THIS: Quirky and relentlessly good-natured, the movie handles the sensitive subject matter flawlessly. Bridges is intensely likable in a role he can play in his sleep.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie relies overly much on the narration and some of the humor doesn’t work. Too many characters make for too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is a bit much for kids, even if it is handled humorously. The language, however, is a bit foul.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the characters were named after characters from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Friday the 13th (2009)