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The Big Year: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

The Big Year (2011) movie poster The Big Year

Theatrical Release: October 14, 2011 / Running Time: 100 Minutes (Theatrical Cut), 103 Minutes (Extended Cut) / Rating: PG (Theatrical Cut), Unrated (Extended Cut) / Songs List

Director: David Frankel / Writers: Howard Franklin (screenplay), Mark Obmasick (book)

Cast: Steve Martin (Stu Preissler), Jack Black (Brad Harris), Owen Wilson (Kenny Bostick), Brian Dennehy (Raymond Harris), Anjelica Huston (Annie Auklet), Rashida Jones (Ellie), Rosamund Pike (Jessica Bostick), Dianne Wiest (Brenda Harris), JoBeth Williams (Edith Preissler), Anthony Anderson (Bill Clemont), Corbin Bernsen (Gil Gordon), Barry Shabaka Henley (Dr. Neil Kramer), Joel McHale (Barry Loomis), Tim Blake Nelson (Fuchs), Jim Parsons (Ichabod Crane), Kevin Pollak (Jim Gittelson), Nate Torrence (Ted Simkin), Steven R. Weber (Rick McIntire), John Cleese (Historical Montage Narrator), Andrew Wilson (Mike Shin), Paul Campbell (Tony Preissler), Cindy Busby (Cindy Preissler), Al Roker (New York Weatherman)

Buy The Big Year from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy • DVD • Instant Video

Months before its theatrical release, I was certain that The Big Year would become one of the biggest flops of 2011. As esoteric as birdwatching is, it wasn't the subject matter that inspired my low expectations.
Nor was it the title, forgettable though it may have been for non-birders. It wasn't the source, Mark Obmascik's bestselling 2004 nonfiction book. Nor was it stars Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, though each has headlined some recent underperformers.

The reason I knew that The Big Year would bomb was because it simply wasn't adequately promoted in advance. Mid-October is not when studios release movies with big commercial hopes, but things look especially grim for a mid-October movie that doesn't have a trailer or a poster online months in advance. In late summer, that was The Big Year, whose entire buzz, as I recall it, consisted of just one still photo of the stars. Even now, two weeks after the film's home video debut, the official Twitter account stands at a pitiful 168 followers; in its defense, it hasn't tweeted since October.

Needless to say, I was right. The movie's $3.25 million opening weekend and $7.2 M final domestic gross put it near the bottom of each of its stars' all-time box office records. Black's Envy, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, and Be Kind Rewind all grossed more. Wilson's 2010 turkey How Do You Know looks like a blockbuster by comparison. Even modest-performing movies Martin made thirty years ago, like Pennies from Heaven and The Man with Two Brains, earned more without adjusting for inflation. Among all 2011 releases, The Big Year ranks a lowly 146th. Among those released in over 2,000 theaters, only the long-shelved Topher Grace comedy Take Me Home Tonight fared slightly worse.

Reigning champ Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), golden-eared Brad Harris (Jack Black) and New York executive Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) are each secretly mounting a big year of birding.

For those not in the know, a big year is a calendar year in which birders try to spot as many different species they can. They travel, often spontaneously, keep a running tally, and while they photograph what they can, they're on the honor system and even just identifying a species' distinct call can be enough. In the wake of El Niño (Obmascik's book documents 1998, but the movie seems to be set in the present day), conditions are just right to attempt such a mission. The film focuses on the efforts of three birders, each of whom is going for a big year, but in secret, so as not to tip off the competition.

Our narrator, divorced 36-year-old ne'er-do-well Brad Harris (Jack Black), is a novice with a golden ear for bird calls. While hanging onto his full-time desk job, he sets out to follow his heart, with skepticism from his father (Brian Dennehy) and encouragement and travel assistance from his mother (Dianne Wiest). Befriending Brad is Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a wealthy New York City executive about to retire for the second time and become a grandfather for the first.
Some unfinished business remains at the company bearing his name, a pressing matter to two of his lackeys (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak), but Stu shuns work responsibilities to follow his long-delayed dream.

Both Brad and Stu are gunning at the world-record 732 species spotted by New Jersey roofing contractor Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson). Bostick, meanwhile, is devoted to defending his crown, often putting that task ahead of his wife (a miscast Rosamund Pike, so out of place and consumed with sounding American) and her efforts to conceive.

The three men and dozens of other bird enthusiasts scour the continent for exotic sightings, springing to action for severe storm fallout and making pilgrimage out to Alaska's remote Attu Island. Rivalry, respect, and teamwork all come into play, as the ornithology buffs sometimes engage in behavior resembling that of certain species.

Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) leaves business behind for a year of heavy birding. Raymond (Brian Dennehy) and Brad (Jack Black) share a powerful father-son moment searching for an owl together one snowy night.

The Big Year will not hold much appeal for non-birders. It's tough to sympathize with wife-shunning men with enough time and money on their hands to pursue such a pastime. The film tries to tackle that problem by making Jack Black's character a single middle-class guy with daddy issues; and don't think for a minute this isn't pure fiction as the tongue-in-cheek opening text ("This is a true story. Only the facts have been changed.") fesses up to. Still, it's an activity which won't read for those who aren't committed to it. CGI birds, comedic bits, montages set to Coldplay and various bird songs all make noble plays for your heart, but none of it succeeds at winning you over.

The film does at least have some things going for it. For one thing, despite setups to the contrary, it repeatedly defies your expectations of life-changing turns. For another, it's not content to paint in broad strokes, to vilify one character and sanctify another. Wilson's confident champion is kept at some distance and shows signs of overcompetitiveness, but he's given shades of gray and the actor's performance is easily the movie's funniest.

Ultimately, though, the movie just doesn't work as planned. You're not laughing, you're not inspired. You're not bored, but that is hardly reason for jubilation.

Jessica's (Rosamund Pike) conception efforts take a backseat to competitive husband Kenny's (Owen Wilson) birding ambitions. Divorced Brad (Jack Black) has his sights set on a lady birder named Ellie (Rashida Jones).

The Big Year brings a stop to director David Frankel's streak of somewhat unexpected $100 million human interest grossers. It is his third bestseller-adapted film for Fox, following the hits The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me. It's also a setback for erratic screenwriter Howard Franklin (Quick Change, The Man Who Knew Too Little), who picks up his first credit since 2001's Antitrust.

On DVD and Blu-ray, The Big Year is presented in both its original theatrical rated cut and an extended unrated version, an unusual move for a PG-rated comedy. The biggest difference is that the extended cut is narrated by John Cleese (who gets an "and" credit on that version), as evidently was originally intended (in the theatrical cut, Cleese narrates just a brief sequence explaining big years). Though this edit runs just 3 minutes and 7 seconds longer, there are a number of differences throughout, like Brad's ex-wife (Stacey Scowley) announcing that she will be getting remarried and another scene with the Atoo newlyweds (Chris Redman and Devon Weigel).

The Big Year's Blu-ray is available exclusively in a combo pack. Once reserved for family films (which despite its rating and unobjectionable content, this is not), the multi-format sets are quickly becoming the norm.

The Big Year: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.35:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (French)
Both (Theatrical Cut only): Dolby Digital 5.1 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: January 31, 2012
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in standalone DVD and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The picture standards for new major studio feature films seem to get better all the time, so it is both odd and noticeable that The Big Year's Blu-ray falls short of the usual excellence. The 2.35:1 picture has quite a bit of grain and not much sizzle, making the film look more like an early 2000s production than a $41 M-budgeted 2011 release. It's tempting to chalk that up to having two cuts of the film, but they are presented via branching and on a dual-layered disc well under capacity. You'd think a film about birding would have more beauty to offer than this does and that's not even touching upon the mixed-bag nature of licensed bird footage.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is quite anchored in the front and center, though it does come alive with certain prominent montage soundtrack selections. The dialogue is crisp and clear. Again, though, you'd think a movie about the great outdoors would have more atmosphere to offer in the surround channels.

In the role of New York weatherman, Al Roker tries a few things out in the gag reel. "The Big Migration" collects thoughts on the globe-trotting production from everyone including caterer Barb Foster.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Beyond the extended cut, the all-HD bonus features begin with twelve deleted and extended scenes (17:31). Other than more Cleese narration and an alternate ending, there's not much else of note here and the film didn't need to be any longer than the 100 minutes of its theatrical cut.

A gag reel (5:58) is expectedly pretty lame, featuring a lot of unused improvisations and fumbles.

"The Big Migration" (18:28) is the obligatory making-of featurette. It focuses on the location challenges on a shoot that traveled all over North America. We hear primarily from crew members, while the three leads provide a little snark together.

Somehow, the trailer's mention of director David Frankel's first two films didn't have people rushing to see "The Big Year." Clips, maps, stills, and Owen Wilson magazine covers adorn the Blu-ray and DVD menu.

The Big Year's feeble original theatrical trailer (1:47), which opens like a disaster movie preview might, is gladly included.
"Sneak Peek" holds trailers for In Time and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the same which play automatically at disc insertion.

A Live Extras section is offered, but with seemingly nothing other than trailers and Blu-ray bonus feature samples from recent and upcoming Fox titles.

As has quickly become the norm at Fox, The Big Year's combo pack consists of two discs, the second a movie-only DVD with digital copies. Unlike the DVD sold on its own, this DVD only contains the theatrical cut and the In Time and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel trailers. And the digital copies, which are two files on the disc (one iTunes, one MP4) as opposed to the UltraViolet streaming fare studios are increasingly favoring.

Both discs feature a scored menu that plays clips with a survey of postcards, photos, maps, and magazine covers. The Blu-ray supports bookmarks on both cuts of the film and also resumes playback to a large degree.

The eco-friendly Blu-ray case is topped by a slipcover. An insert supplies digital copy directions and code.

"The Big Year" stars Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson as three men competing for the same birding record.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Fear not, Martin Short and Chevy Chase; Steve Martin hasn't replaced you with Jack Black and Owen Wilson. The Big Year is light on laughs and heavy on a hobby that holds meaning to almost no one on this planet. That alone doesn't make it a bad movie, but it is a very bland one that squanders its star power and requires you to keep lowering your expectations to enjoy.

Fox's Blu-ray combo pack treats the film to two distinct cuts, which at the very, John Cleese and fans of his voice should appreciate. Picture quality is a bit lacking and there's not much to take from the 45 minutes of additional bonus features. If you liked the movie, the package should satisfy you. But, the chances are pretty excellent that you haven't seen it, don't plan to, and wouldn't like it if you did.

Buy The Big Year from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy / DVD / Instant Video

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Buy the Book by Mark Obmascik: Paperback / Kindle

Related Reviews:
New to Blu-ray: The Rum Diary • In Time • The Apartment • Coming & Going • Real Steel
Steve Martin: Shopgirl • Planes, Trains & Automobiles • Father of the Bride | Jack Black: Gulliver's Travels • Tropic Thunder
Owen Wilson: Marley & Me • How Do You Know • Midnight in Paris • Hall Pass • Marmaduke • The Darjeeling Limited
2011 Bombs: Take Me Home Tonight • I Don't Know How She Does It • Prom • Mars Needs Moms • Drive Angry
Eat Pray Love • Julie & Julia • Earth • Everybody's Fine • Invincible • The Crimson Wing • Rio

The Big Year Songs List: Django Reinhardt - "Minor Swing", Zombie Bank - "(If I Had) A Sandwich With You", Iron & Wine - "The Devil Never Sleeps", "Wheel of Fortune Underscore", Jeremy Fisher - "Let It Shine", Steve Martin - "Pitkin County Turnaround", Zombie Bank - "I'll Have the Halibut", Zombie Bank - "Away With Pie", Alexandre Desplat - "The Doge's Decree - Concerto in C Major", Coldplay - "Viva La Vida", Jeremy Fisher - "Come Fly Away", The Trashmen - "Surfin' Bird", Brad Mehldau - "Blackbird", Eels - "I Like Birds", New York Treble Singers - "Adeste Fideles", Bing Crosby - "Silent Night", Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians - "Auld Lang Syne", Guster - "This Could All Be Yours"

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Reviewed February 16, 2012.



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