In birding terms a Big Year is: “to see who can see or hear the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area.” So, what do you achieve if you finish at the top of the list on December 31st? Money? Adulation? Endorsements? Not really, but more of a self-satisfying inner air-punch knowing that you, and you alone, are currently the greatest birder in North America.
Director David Frankel, the man behind The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me, takes an interesting and obscure premise, but unfortunately does nothing with it. Instead he creates a ‘safe bet,’ a film which is guaranteed to entertain during the brief moments which do contain some semblance of excitement and humor, whilst also refraining from being offensive in any manner whatsoever, but this results in a film which will fails to suitably engage a mass audience for its one hour and forty minutes running time.
The Big Year follows a poor, young, yet aspirational birder in Brad Harris (Jack Black), who also serves as the films narrator, and a retired former-CEO named Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) who wants to leave his world of work behind him once and for all (he’s attempted retirement before) and actually enjoy the finer points in life for once. Brad lives with his parents after his previous marriage failed and despite his financial insecurity and his father’s reluctance, he places everything he has into making a Big Year.
While Stu, supported by his wife Edith (JoBeth Williams), just wants to experience birding for what it is. Despite an insurmountable mountain of wealth at his fingertips, he instead opts to drive, pillage and work toward his birding conquest by himself and along the way he meets the determined Brad as they strike a friendship up over their common love for the feathery creatures.
Alongside their story, there is also Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) who holds the Big Year record, once a contractor, he decided to turn his efforts toward his childhood hobby of bird watching, and his hard-work eventually paid off as he became the most recognized birder in the world, but this wasn’t without consequence.
Fast forward a few years later and now Bostick is attempting to settle down with his new wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike), but when January 1st rolls around again he can’t shake the fact that somebody may be attempting to break his record and he sets out once again to complete yet another Big Year and in the process he places yet another marriage on the slippery black rocks of potential divorce-hood as he must carefully navigate a tight-rope between his hobby and his future.
The picture opens with on-screen titles stating that this is a true story, except for the fact that all the facts have been changed in this adaptation of Mark Obmascik’s book, a relatively subtle and mild-mannered joke which sets the tone for the rest of the movie, the key word here being: mild. The Big Year contains an established cast, a well-developed script, and an experienced director at the helm, but it consistently fails to grab the audience’s attention, instead opting for the precariously easy route of birding puns and slapstick gags instead.
For the birding enthusiasts among us, the constant quick-witted use of bird names in various puns and humorous jokes is no doubt going to tickle a few feathers, but to uninitiated it becomes a painfully slow descent into somebody else’s hobby and somebody else’s dream scenario.
While, the characters themselves all seem to develop at a pace, it is the script, despite being neat, concise and thorough it lacks anything of vigor. The characters, despite being slightly more than one-dimensional caricatures, have very predictable and tired journeys, whilst Bostick also comes across as somewhat of a red herring (cheap attempt at birding humor…). For one moment he comes across as the brash, arrogant antagonist of the piece, whilst the next he is the honorable birder who wants to do nothing less than recreate the blissful childhood joy he had when he was a child growing up around many winged creatures.
This could have been bird-watching’s quirky equivalent to Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, yet it is more of an example of how filmmaking, no matter how competent, can still refrain from fully engaging with an audience by simply refusing to take any chances whatsoever, especially when it is attempting to bring a mass audience into such an original and individual recreational activity.