With Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin, Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy; Running Time: 100 minutes; Rated PG (for language and some sensuality); Written by Howard Franklin; Directed by David Frankel.
There’s a germ of an idea in THE BIG YEAR that might have made a much better movie than the one actually being released. Based on Mark Obmascik’s non-fiction book of the same title, it is about “birders” (bird watchers to us civilians) who take a year to try and see as many birds in North America as they possibly can with the goal of seeing more than anyone else. What’s interesting is less the obsessiveness of the birders than how those driven in pursuit of this goal can make connections with others who share their obsession.
Kenny Bostick is the reigning bird-watching champ, having set a record with over 700 different sightings in one year. Now he’s trying to do it again. The fact that he’s played by Owen Wilson tells you everything you need to know about this smarmy, self-absorbed character, including how he puts the birds ahead of his marriage and his work. Then there’s Stu Pressler (Steve Martin), a wealthy businessman who has retired to pursue his dream of having his “big year” tracking down birds across the country. However, the corporation he founded doesn’t want to let him go. Finally, there’s Brad Harris (Jack Black), divorced and holding down a job he doesn’t really like while he takes time off to see if he can set the new record.
The movie gets the message right – if you’re doing what you love then “winning” shouldn’t be important – and has some nice moments as Stu and Brad form an unlikely friendship. Yet there’s way too much time spent on Kenny trying to psych out the other competitors and neglecting his wife (Rosamund Pike). We also learn more than most of us probably need to know about just how difficult it is to see so many birds around the country, and the effort it takes to do so. For less ambitious bird watchers, these details may be fascinating – sort of like someone who plays pick-up softball games reading about players in the World Series – but for most of us, it’s strictly for the birds.
Surprisingly, the performance of the film is Black’s, not usually known for being subtle or underplaying, but who gives us someone who longs to find people with whom he can share his enthusiasm, whether it’s his parents (Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy) or a fellow birder (Rashida Jones). Wilson is his usual annoying self and Martin is amiable but bland, although he does have a memorable moment where he brings back his “wild and crazy guy” persona from his “Saturday Night Live” days.
Even more surprising are the people who pop up in small roles along the way, from John Cleese doing a voiceover, to onscreen appearances by Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, Anthony Anderson, JoBeth Williams, Anjelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, Al Roker, Steve Weber, and Corbin Bernsen. Either people in Hollywood are really hurting for work or someone connected with this film has a lot of friends. Huston, for example, has a few scenes as a woman who runs a boat that makes excursions out to see seabirds. It, like the movie, is not the sort of part the Academy will be noticing at the end of the year.
“The Big Year” is so slight it threatens to fly away, mixing some genuinely touching moments with a lot of heavy-handed plotting. There’s even the inevitable reference to the old Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Birds.” It may be a “big year” for birders, but viewers will likely find this much more palatable on the small screen.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.