A film review by Craig J. Koban October 19, 2011

THE BIG YEAR jjj

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

Directed by David Frankel / Written by Howard Franklin and Mark Omascik.

THE 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. 

David 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.   

Hereís 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. 

 

 

Bostick 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 otherwise. 

What 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.   

When 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.

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