Three birders compete to find the most species in North America in one year in The Big Year, a refreshingly sweet movie about the love of a hobby.
Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is the greatest American birder. He has completed a few Big Years — what it’s called when a bird-watcher makes an attempt to spot as many species as possible in Canada and the U.S. (there are apparently certain islands that are involved, certain islands that aren’t — check out the Wikipedia entry on Big Years, it will make you tired). He’s also, as you might imagine, kind of obsessive and jerky about it. As the movie and a new year begins, he sets out to start some birding so that he can make sure nobody will break his record. This doesn’t sit so well with his wife (Rosamund Pike), who expected him to be around to help her conceive a child.
But Kenny knows that somewhere out there are people like Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a recently retired business executive who decides to live out a life-long dream and spend a year traveling to try to be the top birder that year. And then there’s Brad Harris (Jack Black), a guy who appears down on his luck in most parts of his life. But he’s determined, despite a lack of cash and a full-time job, to have a Big Year, and his ability to identify birds by their songs might just give him the edge.
I went into this movie not knowing what it was about — world travel, was what I got from the trailer. And no wonder — how do you sell the movie-going public on a bird-watching movie? The solution seemed to be to distract us with funny stuff from Black and Martin. Even now, having seen the movie, I don’t know how I’d cut a more realistic trailer that didn’t involve birds and scare the guano out of most people. Which is too bad, because in its own way, The Big Year is kind of great.
Exactly why, I guess, has to do in part with all the things it isn’t. It isn’t a romantic comedy, it isn’t a slapstick comedy, it isn’t some sort of action movie and it isn’t 90 minutes of Jack Black making fart jokes. It has good performances — from Black, Martin and Wilson (though his character is that one that we always see from him and he could probably find another character to play now) but also from Rashida Jones as a birder Black befriends, Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy as Brad’s parents, Anjelica Huston as a tour-boat captain. I mean, not Oscar-winning or anything but solid performances where everybody pulls back on the reins rather than going full Patch-Adams wacky.
But I think most fascinatingly, The Big Year held me because it was a movie about a hobby. It treats the idea of a hobby as a potentially life-fulfilling thing. Stu loves his wife and misses his job and wants to spend more time with his grandchild and he still gets to have and enjoy a hobby. What a strikingly adult concept for a PG movie. And I actually started to find myself interested in the birds, much in the way that talking to somebody who has a passion for something can make that thing sound interesting to you too.
The Big Year may even be funny enough to qualify as a family movie — specifically, one that can keep the kid members of the family entertained as well as the adult members. I wouldn’t take a kid younger than maybe 8 or 9 to see it (there is a lot about birds after all), but older kids may have enough fun with some of the birding one-up-manship. B
Rated PG for language and some sensuality. Directed by David Frankel with a screenplay by Howard Franklin (from a book by Mark Obmascik), The Big Year is an hour and 41 minutes long and is distributed by 20th Century Fox.