Art & Culture

You will be forgiven if you haven't noticed the recent dvd release of The Big Year, a film that also came and went at the cinema with no discernible ripple on the pond of public attention. Yet it is a textbook case of how badly Hollywood can get things wrong when it really tries. Let's start at the beginning. Some executive somewhere decided to make a film about birdwatching. Correction, not birdwatching, but obsessive birdwatching. The kind where you spend a whole calendar year trying to see as many birds as possible. Just to be clear, there is such an informal competition which has been happening regularly for several decades, and a book was written about it, on which this film is very loosely based.

OK, so what kind of audience is there for a film about birdwatching? Well, there are thousands if not millions of birdwatchers out there, so they should be a given, right? Except that birdwatchers tend to spend most of their time watching birds. Then make it a comedy. Hire three big comedy stars, Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson, and turn it into a laughfest. Good idea, but where's the humour? Nowhere to be seen, unfortunately. The plot consists of three blokes chasing round America all of them pretending they're not doing a big year, while trying to spot as many birds as possible. (And incidentally, you don't even have to prove that you've seen these birds). There really isn't a laugh to be seen, not even with binoculars. Unless you count Owen Wilson making Steve Martin seasick by repeating the phrase "pitching and tossing" absolutely hilarious.

All the same, Steve, Jack and Owen need characters. Here we are. Three ready made characters we found on a shelf, gathering dust, if not rust. Jack can be the guy who still lives at home even in his 30s, eats too much, gets no respect from his dad, is mothered by his mum, but has a passion that can transform his life. Steve can be the head of a huge financial empire who just wants to give it all up, and watch birds, with a supportive wife. Owen can be the pushy chancer who has a less supportive wife, and a little cute hat to show he's hip. Let's throw in some great supporting actors like Rosamund Pike, Anjelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, Dianne WIest (and more) to give the thing a little credibility, and off they go.

What do you mean – where's the plot? They're going to see how many birds they can find, while saving their marriages, finding their inner zing, and realising that there are more important things in life than watching birds. Of course it'll be a hit.

You can't help but wonder at what point in this sorry exercise anyone noticed that this was never going to work. Not in 2 million light years (yes, I know that's a measure of distance). There is literally nothing to make people want to go and see this film. It's not funny, dramatic, cool, scary, credible or interesting. It's not even bad. Black, Wilson and Martin go through the motions, trying to generate some energy, but you can't resuscitate something that was never alive in the first place. The whole thing cost over $40 million, which is a lot less than, say, John Carter, but then there are no special effects or expensive add ons. It's just three blokes driving from place to place. And I don't suppose the birds got paid. And when all the dust had settled, the grand amount of $7 million came in at the box office, half of which goes to the cinemas, who probably wished they hadn't been contractually obliged to show the thing in the first place.

And there we have it. Another bright shining example of Wilful Blindness. Everyone must have known from the beginning that this project had no prospect of success, but they just went ahead anyway. Next time, guys, give me a call, and I'll help you save a lot of money.

By Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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