A film review by Craig J. Koban October 19, 2011
THE BIG YEAR
2011, PG, 89 mins.
2011, PG, 89 mins.
Stu: Steve Martin / Kenny: Owen Wilson / Brad: Jack Black /
Jim: Kevin Pollak / Fuchs: Tim Blake Nelson / Ellie: Rashida
Jones / Annie: Anjelica Huston
BIG YEAR takes a subject matter that, quite frankly, I had no idea
actually existed and manages to place it within a comedy that miraculously
does not mock or scathingly attack its characters.
Instead, it refreshingly treats its subject rather seriously and does a very
accurate job of conveying the level of joyful and euphoric obsession of
its players. The film is also
decent for communicating something about nature itself and the limitless
multitude of creatures that fly over our heads on a daily basis that we
often ignore, usually while we are on our morning commutes to work while
guzzling down on Tim Hortonís coffee.
I am talking about birds here, folks. Bird watching. Competitive bird watching. Actually, scratch those last two descriptors: I mean ďbirdingĒ for those that hold the pastime close and dear to their hearts (I donít want to offend anyone here). And what is a ďBig YearĒ, you may ask? A Big Year is a somewhat casual (for some people, anyway) competition among birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of bird species within one calendar year. Itís so informal that everyone that participates does it on the honor system: photographic or video proof is not always required and, for the most part, just claiming to have seen a bird counts towards your total. If there is one thing that all the players in question share it is a congenial level of camaraderie in their passion for avian wonders.
Frankelís (MARLEY AND ME and THE
DEVIL WEARS PRADA) THE BIG YEAR is ever-so-loosely based on a real
story and the 2004 non-fiction book by Mark Omascik and it tells the
story of three men that are all polar opposites of the other, but their
commonality is a lust for birding and a passion to be the number one
birder in the entire world. All
three men are at different stages of their respective lives and all have
personal dilemmas, but they donít let their troubles interfere with
their quest to literally travel to remote parts of the globe to see as
many exotic and rare birds as they can.
The various family subplots involving the men are all on
melodramatic autopilot (i.e. Ė settling down to have babies, but your
wife is infertile; the drudge of retirement; and parents that donít
understand your compulsive hobbies, etc), but THE BIG YEAR makes up for its
prosaic scripting by evoking a love of the outdoors, a fascinating
appreciation of exploring avian life, the thrill of travel to oftentimes
beautiful locales, and the simple pleasures of meeting and getting to know
people that share your interests.
the basics of the story: Owen
Wilson plays Kenny Bostick, the world record holder for birding (heís
seen 732 species, kind of remarkable) and even though heís a pleasant
enough fellow without a vile bone in his body, he does not want to
relinquish his title to anyone. When
not birding heís a contractor whose wife (the always fetching Rosamund
Pike) is struggling with conceiving a child.
He decides to secretly embark on another Big Year mission, much to
his wifeís dismay. Clearly, if I had Pike for a wife I would most certainly not
let birding interfere with my domestic duties to her, but never mind.
does inevitably find some competition, though, on his quest for another
record. First, thereís Stu
Preissler (Steve Martin) that has been a wealthy CEO that has faced
retirement on many occasions. He
has everything, but what he doesnít have is a what he has wanted since
he was a child: a chance to compete for a Big Year.
He commits himself to the task with his wifeís blessing, but not
that of his co-workers and shareholders.
Then there is Brad Harris (Jack Black), a man in his late 30ís
that is recently divorced and is a largely underachieving tech nerd
working at a nuclear power plant. Harris
has always loved the act of birding, but now he feels that winning a Big
Year is not only his calling, but also a way for he to get back some much
needed self-respect. His
domineeringly pragmatic and curmudgeonly father (Brian Dennehy) feels
occurs next in the brisk and jovial narrative is essentially a 12-month
odyssey by the men and others to destinations ranging from Alaska to
British Columbia to Florida and places far and wide and in-between so that
they can take claim to being the Grand Poobah of birding.
As a picturesque travelogue, THE BIG YEAR is consistently and
nonchalantly sumptuous to engage in at times as we see the men view birds
in all of their various habitats. The
film even manages to find small moments of awe-inspiring grandeur, as is
the case during one fascinating moment as the camera catches the mating of two bald eagles that lock talons and then swirl down to earth in
a free-fall courtship. Really, really cool.
the film does not revel in its natural beauties it settles down to the competitive
nature between Bostick, Preissler, and Harris, and the film
has some fun with how each one of them forms their own SURVIVOR-esque
partnerships and alliances that come and go as the situation presents
itself. The characters
themselves are somewhat simply and narrowly defined, but the way that
Wilson, Martin, and Black rise
above their conventional roles and make us care, in one form or another,
about them and their birding trek makes the film work.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of THE BIG YEAR is the interplay
between these men: they are not
quite bitter enemies, not quite lifelong friends, but they do like and
respect one another, enjoy each otherís company, and they all seem like
nice and decent people. The
temptation to make Wilsonís Bostick, for example, a moustache swirling
antagonist must have been there, but the screenplay here makes him a cocky
and charming, but vulnerable and flawed man at the same time.
One other thing that THE BIG YEAR does resoundingly well is that it makes birding culture intriguingly eccentric, but inviting at the same time. It would be easy to label these people as crazy, but is a communal appetite for the outdoors and, in turn, an abundant appreciation for life forms outside of our own really all that crazy? Thereís an infectiously adventurous and childlike spirit that binds Bostick, Preissler, and Harris together and the film shows an appreciation and affection for them and their pursuits. They all want to win a Big Year, to be sure, but theyíre not going to ruthlessly backstab each in the process, mostly because they hold their mutual love of birding so closely.
THE BIG YEAR has been criticized by some for not being laugh-out-loud funny considering the comedic talent on board, but its aims are not to ruthlessly tickle our funny bones. There are moments of humor to be found here, but the leads play their roles rather straight and resist the urge to ham it up to annoying, farcical levels. In the end, I liked how gentle and nice THE BIG YEAR was with its material, and it at least dives into a subject thatís new and uncharted as far as films go. Itís a nice film about fairly nice people engaging in a mostly nice Ė but fiercely competitive Ė pastime. I had a nice and relaxing time watching it, and so will you. It's just a nice film.