The Big Year
Directed by David Frankel
Screenplay by Howard Franklin
Jack Black as Brad Harris
Zahf Paroo as Prasad
Owen Wilson as Kenny Bostick
Rosamund Pike as Jessica
Steve Martin as Stu Preissler
Kevin Pollak as Jim Gittelson
Joel McHale as Barry Loomis
JoBeth Williams as Edith
How long is The Big Year? 100 minutes.
What is The Big Year rated? PG for language and some sensuality.
Warm And Downy, But No ‘Rara Avis’
David Frankel, director of such high-profile book adaptations as Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada, serves up a feather-light comedy about birdwatching in North America.
Strike that. The preferred term is actually “birding.” Birders like being called “birdwatchers” about as much as Trekkers enjoy being called “basement-dwelling prom rejects.” But I digress. As a child of birders, I was raised with a nominal respect for the hobby, and in time acquired a genuine appreciation of our seasonal outings to High Island and Brazos Bend State Park. To this day I remain a bit of a nature-program junkie, and although I can identify a few unusual birds on sight, I consider myself non-practicing – a lapsed birder, if you will.
Welcome to The Big Year, which chronicles the misadventures of three men out to spot the most birds in a single calendar cycle. Brad (Jack Black) is a youngish romantic to whom the “big year” represents an escape from his soul-sucking tech job and an opportunity to achieve a worthy life goal. Stu (Steve Martin) is a veteran of the game, whose passion for birds has kept him sane and stable under the pressure of managing millions in the corporate sphere. These two are dead-set on knocking the current big year record out of the sky.
The record holder is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the kind of guy whom everyone greets by disdainfully muttering “Bostick!” when he approaches. The closest this movie has to a villain, he plays the familiar Owen Wilson role to perfection – preternaturally soft-spoken, playfully arrogant, and childishly competitive. Bostick has nothing further to prove, as far as the birding world is concerned, but harbors a dreadful insecurity that once unseated he will be forgotten. Like an aging varsity quarterback, he has trouble facing a full-time position in the real world, where he has a career to maintain and a family to rear. Initially taking the field just to “set the pace,” he quickly finds himself swept away on another earnest big year bid, much to the chagrin of his latest wife.
Thus the grueling contest begins, as the three birders try to outrun, outwit, and outmaneuver one another across North America. Along the way, each will acquire perspective on what matters most in life. There are no surprises. The payoff of each plot arc is completely predictable. The fun of this particular chase comes from the stunning landscapes, the majesty of the birds themselves, and the easy banter among three seasoned comedians in low gear. This is very much a movie about the journey, not the destination, and this particular journey is no more or less thrilling than a pleasant drive with a favorite aunt and uncle.
How anyone beat Christopher Guest to the idea of a birding film is a mystery. The topic seems ripe for his brand of biting wit, which would presumably laugh more at birders than with them, but would also presumably have more laughs. Even a simple rewrite by someone like Bill Bryson would have made this a much sharper comedy, and broaden the film’s appeal beyond a rather slim target audience. This is a cute, feel-good, mostly forgettable bit of fun, which is more enjoyable if you happen to be in on the conventions of birding etiquette. The film’s depiction of avid birders, in all their charming nuttiness, is true to life without mocking. It seems to have been made for birders by birders.
Big year birding is about as serious as an amateur pursuit can get. Sure, you get to roam around the Aleutians and the Pacific Northwest, but you are just as likely to find yourself wading through a garbage dump on the Texican border. You must be prepared for travel at any time, to any place, at the bidding of the slightest weather condition or seasonal change. As one stuffy British chap observes, “Only the Americans could turn birding into a competition!” High talk from the folks who turned cricket into a sport, but a fair point nonetheless. One of the most peculiar aspects of birding is the strict honor code governing those who partake. All birders keep their own numbers, even when competing for a big year title. The question of whether or not Kenny Bostick is cheating – that is, counting birds he only may have seen – is a major dramatic question. In a sports movie it would be drugs. In a political thriller it would be bribery or sex scandals. In The Big Year, cheating on your bird list is the cardinal sin (yes, I’m leaving that one in), and I think that’s a very sweet idea. Ultimately, it seems likely that Brad and Stu keep pushing to break Bostick’s record – a whopping 732 species, by the way – simply to prove it is possible to do without cheating. Winning the title for themselves is almost a secondary concern.
Jack Black will always be entertaining at his most unhinged and vulgar, as in Tenacious D or High Fidelity. However, that act has landed him few truly enjoyable films. Here, he does a nice job with “pensive yet mischievous.” He tried that before in Richard Linklater’s School Of Rock, which happened to be a total snoozer. The Big Year puts his subtler side to better use. Caught between the rat race and dreams of glory, Brad is just plain likable. It makes sense that Stu would cultivate a kind of paternal affection for him. It may be hard to accept, but Steve Martin seems to have reached the age when he does better to amuse us with sly facial expressions and impeccable comic timing than to blow our socks off with zany antics. Worthy latecomers like Bowfinger and Sergeant Bilko notwithstanding, the time has come for The Jerk to hand over to the Father Of The Bride.
The Big Year peppers its supporting cast with a nice parade of faces, including Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Tim Blake Nelson, Anjelica Huston, Kevin Pollak, and the voice of John Cleese. Rashida Jones cutes it up as Jack Black’s fellow bird-call prodigy and potential love interest. In addition, please enjoy an eyeful of grosbeaks, warblers, owls, terns, buntings, woodpeckers, and perhaps even the elusive pink-footed goose, if you are lucky. It may be a little film in many ways, but The Big Year has some big names and a great big heart.