reviewed just three weeks ago and have seen a couple more times since. The movie isn't a towering masterwork, but it has the ability to shake the bad thoughts out of your head, a quality some of us could use these days, and which you're not going to get out of something like Au Hasard Balthazar. I'm not a birder - or even, really, much of an obsessive - but whatever granular inaccuracies the movie may have, it seems to get the essence of birding right. Although the film pokes some gentle fun at its subject, it's surprisingly respectful, even reverential on the whole. A cast that features Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson may promise the kind of big yuks (or, given their recent collective track record, unfunny ones) that The Big Year has no intention of delivering, yet David Frankel, who directed, offers something more: a sustained, sublime bliss.
The Blu-Ray (recently purchased, as a Christmas present for myself) of The Big Year contains both the Theatrical Release and an Extended Edition, and the two offer a vivid comparison of the choices filmmakers make in post-production. The theatrical version runs 100 minutes, the extended 103 - either one still about 40 minutes shorter than the average Judd Apatow joint. The additional three minutes don't provide any more laughs; they're mainly superfluous character development scenes that the movie is better for having cut (e.g., a phone call from Black's ex-wife). Frankel, who did fine directorial work on HBO for a number of years (most famously on Sex and the City, but also two of the best episodes of Band of Brothers: "The Breaking Point" and "Why We Fight"), as well as the brisk, entertaining feature film The Devil Wears Prada, is a modern-day comedy director who obviously understands the value of editing. Fashion and birding aren't exactly topics that lend themselves to the term "fast-paced," yet both The Devil Wears Prada and The Big Year move swiftly, not as wild knockabout farce, but through character beats that cumulatively build narrative momentum. (Frankel's editor on both films is Mark Livolsi, who does a stellar job; yet watching Livolsi's work on Cameron Crowe's plodding We Bought a Zoo or Vanilla Sky suggests that Frankel is the prime mover for how nimbly his own films move.)
With a plot involving a trio of protagonists, a timeframe that covers 365 days, and a milieu expanding across the country, The Big Year offers some enormous editorial challenges; yet the most significant difference between the extended and theatrical version isn't anything we see but what we hear. The theatrical, which I saw first, features extensive narration from Jack Black, who plays the blue-collar birder Brad Harris, and an early in-and-out voice-cameo from John Cleese, whom Brad cheekily introduces as "this English guy" who briefly and loftily explains what a "big year" means in the world of birding. The theatrical release's narration foregrounds Brad as the main character, yet it also offers some occasionally incongruous phrasing and moments where Brad tells us about his principal competitors, retiring billionaire Stu Preissler (Martin), and big-year record-holder Kenny Bostick (Wilson), even though he couldn't have known what they were up to when he wasn't present.
While the J.C.V.O. levels the playing field between Brad, Stu, and Kenny - viewing each of them equally, objectively - the ironic detachment severs the movie's emotional connection, which Brad, as the most sympathetic character, provides. Consequently, even though Martin and Wilson come across as slightly more secondary in the theatrical release, they make stronger impressions there than in the extended edition. (This is Steve Martin's most committed performance in two decades, and possibly - particularly in his scenes with Black - his warmest ever; and the prickly qualities of Owen Wilson's Bostick, when viewed through Brad's eyes, come across as the temperament of an uncompromising artist devoted to his craft.) Cleese's inflections, while amusing for the "history of the big year" segment, intrude on the genuine passion and affection that The Big Year has for its subject. So while some of Cleese's scientific jargon sounds a little strange coming out of Black's mouth - much of it is rephrased or eliminated, but bits and pieces sometimes slip through - Black gets the emotions right, and that's what counts.