Reflective and gently funny
The competitive birders postpone their everyday lives to chase birds and status. Nature and animal lovers will enjoy dozens of “aha!” moments in this film from David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada).
Seen for a just a few seconds each, dozens of birds – many rare and unusual – make cameo appearances.
In one stunningly beautiful scene, a pair of American Eagles plummets in a sky-high, dramatic mating ritual. Birders nationwide are hailing this film for featuring the quietly thrilling sport and pastime.
Chasing true success
You could say that Stu Preissler (Martin), Brad Harris (Black) and Kenny Bostick (Wilson) are embracing their gentle, feminine sides.
Each yearns to fill a deep need within that goes beyond family and material success. They long to be fully human. For Kenny in particular, birding becomes a spiritual path.
Successful CEO Stu longs to retire and do what he loves. Birding and spending time with his expected first grandchild top the list. Martin develops real depth and interest in his character despite brief screen time.
Black is oddly beautiful
Software tech Brad lives with his mom and dad after a divorce. He’s the oddly beautiful soul personified. Brad maxes out credit cards to finance his participation in the contest. His mom (Dianne Wiest) pledges her support, while his dad (Brian Dennehy) tells him to get a real life.
Brad falls for another birder Ellie (Rashida Jones) who’s already spoken for.
World record holder Kenny, who spotted 732 birds last year, is intent on staying number one. As the admired and resented champion, he plays some dirty tricks to mislead his competitors.
Kenny’s wife (Rosamund Pike) yearns to start a family. He keeps promising her that each Big Year will be his last.
Demands of a big year
Doing a “big year” can be exhausting, uncomfortable, expensive and even dangerous. Competitive birders travel at a moment’s notice, just one step ahead of the violent weather that will drive the birds’ migration.
The movie swings between different locations, bird sightings, and scenes from the birders’ lives.
The contest helps and hurts The Big Year. The initial excitement fades as the birders race to spot the most wild birds in North America within one year.
Shortchanging the actors
The movie doesn’t focus enough on its three gifted comic actors. I wanted to spend more time with these characters.
The Big Year captures a sense of community with nods to renowned, real-life birders. Anjelica Huston’s Annie Auklet is modeled on the pelagic guide Debi Shearwater. Kenny visits Phoebe’s Diner, a reference to the late Phoebe Snetsinger, who recorded over 8,000 lifetime sightings.
CGI effects jarred my attention away from the narrative, especially in a strangely funny scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds. CGI is used to show details such as the Xantus’ Hummingbird’s gorget, and the Great Gray Owl’s “bow tie.”
Uneven film with a good heart
The three main characters seem to star in their own separate movies. Only frenzied jaunts to spot wild birds connect them. Stu and Brad join forces to defeat Kenny, but their friendship doesn’t feel fully developed.
Howard Franklin’s screenplay is based on Mark Obmascik’s book The Big Year. A similar contest between three men really did happen in 1998.
After a heart attack, Brad’s dad begins to appreciate his son’s ambition. As the two trudge over a hilly trail to find an owl, Brad has an epiphany of his own. (3 out of 5 stars)
The Big Year 2011 / PG / 1 hour, 40 min
Cast Overview: Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Anjelica Huston, Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson, Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, JoBeth Williams
Director: David Frankel
Genre: Comedy, Dramedy