A featherweight comedy about competitive bird-watching, or “birding” as it’s properly known, The Big Year sees Steve Martin, his generation’s pre-eminent Preening Booby, crossing migration paths with slacker comedy kings Owen Wilson and Jack Black. Bird-poop jokes and falls from trees seem sure to follow.
Surprisingly, they don’t. As directed by David Frankel ( The Devil Wears Prada, Marley and Me), The Big Year, loosely based on Mark Obmascik’s non-fiction book, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, is more interested in warm and fuzzy life lessons than exploiting the slapstick opportunities inherent in chasing small creatures through inhospitable terrains.
The result is an offence-free, mild entertainment in which everyone from cast to scriptwriter seems to be winging it. The films begins with its voice-over by Brad Harris (Jack Black), a divorced, 36-year-old computer-code writer, who lives with his parents (Brian Dennehy and Diane Wiest). Brad introduces a John Cleese-narrated animation clip, offering a spurious history of the North American contest where bird fanatics compete to see who can spot the largest number of different species in one 12-month period in the continental United States and Canada. The commitment can involve thousands of dollars and constant travel, with the successes quaintly documented on the honour system.
Brad has decided his time has come to break the record of 737 birds, to prove to himself and his critical father that he’s not a loser. He next introduces his competitors: Stu Preissler (Martin) is a rich CEO who longs to retire from the top of the financial world’s pecking order to pursue his real passion. He has the support of his globe-trotting wife (JoBeth Williams), but is undermined by his needy corporate colleagues, who keep demanding one more essential meeting.
Finally, we are introduced to the birdman to beat, Kenny Bostick (Wilson, in a Fockers-like alpha-dude role) – a wealthy roofing contractor and self-styled “Mozart” of the birding world, who ignores the pleas of his latest wife (Rosamund Pike) to stay home and help make a baby, so he can get out on the road and defend his record.
What follows is a series of frantic trips to various serene locations, with beautiful British Columbia (shot with anamorphic lenses and occasional flair to suggest nature documentary) standing in for the rest of the continent. The principal story focuses on Brad and Stu’s on-again, off-again intergenerational bromance. They meet and bond aboard a bird-spotting ferry, then break up, and later reunite in an effort to defeat the wily Bostick, as the days of the year tick by. A side jaunt to the remote Aleutian island of Attu allows Brad to meet a potential romantic interest (Rashida Jones) so he can finally begin to get his own nest in order. Frequent bursts of the Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird on his cellphone mark their initial long-distance relationship.
Bird fanciers haven’t had much reason to put down their binoculars and watch movies since the early sixties, when John Frankenheimer’s The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic The Birds (1963) were released in back-to-back years. The Big Year, which focuses on the hobbyists’ zaniness, rather than the object of their interest, doesn’t fill the bill. The occasional inserted footage of a pink-footed goose or a CGI-generated hummingbird is unlikely to register as a significant event on any birder’s life list.
The Big Year
- Directed by David Frankel
- Written by Howard Franklin
- Starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black
- Classification: PG