Sunday, December 16, 2012

More on The Big Year, with notes on the Extended Edition

I've become a little obsessed with The Big Year, the birding comedy I 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.

The Extended Edition explains these oddities: Brad wasn't the original narrator. It was John Cleese, whom I am calling "John Cleese" because he never appears as a character onscreen. He plays, in fact, an omniscient narrator, whose voiceover in the extended version provides a kind of ironic counterpoint to what we see onscreen. Cleese's supercilious tone appears designed to resemble a ornithologist giving a presentation at an academic conference, the idea seeming to be that we should regard birders as possessing the attributes of a particular "species." I encourage you to see the extended version, but only after viewing the theatrical release, because the former - however clever the original narration may have sounded on the pages of Howard Franklin's script - is instructively disastrous on the screen.

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.

I don't know if the changes were the decision of the filmmakers or the studio, but they enhance the impact of the movie considerably. Even if nobody saw it. It's easy to denounce a studio's lack of imagination in the release of a movie that's a tad unconventional - a movie about birds that features no scenes where characters are crapped on from on-high is undeniably a tough sell - and I certainly did, but I'll give Fox 2000 Pictures and its financial partners a token of credit for being at least adventurous enough to green-light the picture in the first place. The Big Year didn't give them a hit; but it is a movie that deserves to be seen. It has my favorite line of dialogue from any movie all year. ("Fallout.") And it contains my favorite montage since the one where Anne Hathaway goes to work in an array of outfits in Frankel's Devil Wears Prada. In The Big Year, it comes during the middle portion of the movie on Attu Island (actually the Yukon), a remote hinterland that offers some of the best birding in the world. As the birders collectively set out, the names of the species they find are captioned on the tundra; and Frankel's scoring of this sequence to Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" becomes the most elating use of a major pop hit since U2's "With or Without You" in Tell No One. Like much of The Big Year, the words of the song aren't important to the scene; it's the feeling that's transcendent.


Jason Bellamy said...

THE BIG YEAR. So I saw it. And I finally caught up with your two posts.

(This comparison of the two cuts is really interesting, because if you'd asked me ahead of time I'd have guessed the Cleese narration was stronger; although you do a fine job of explaining why it doesn't work.)

Martin is indeed good here. He's one of those guys who tends to be as good as the material.

I also agree that the three-man dynamic is interesting, and the movie does a nice job of showing how the obsession suffocates the passion that created it. (You don't say this but you must have been thinking it: I think we see this in cinephilia land a lot these days.)

One of the the things I really enjoyed about the movie is the way it explores male relationships in ways that aren't typical. Oh, there's competition and rivalry, and that's typical. But only Bostick is truly obsessed with winning -- and it's nice that the movie gives him the moment with the owl at the end. The relationship between Martin's and Black's characters is defined by a sense that these men find comfort in one another because they "get" one another in ways that others don't -- but thankfully the movie doesn't triple-underline the point like most mainstream movies tend to do. And I appreciated watching guys who are tender, supportive and mature. (This is the antidote to Apatow in many ways.) I don't think Martin's character tells Black's that he misses him, but when he apologizes for lying to him, that's the message just below the surface.

Yeah, THE BIG YEAR isn't a major movie. But it finds beauty in so many of the minor moments that too many movies overlook. Thanks for the recommendation!

Craig said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Jason. You highlighted one of my favorite scenes - Martin's apology - although what I like best is his reaction when Brad starts to confess that he told Bostick about his big year. "Laugh it off," I thought, a split-second before he did. It was beautifully in character.

(Frankly, I never understood the big deal about not telling Bostick. And wouldn't he have found out anyway from Jim Parsons' blog?)

It's not a great movie. But I'd rather rewatch THE BIG YEAR again right now than a lot of other films.