Monday, October 17, 2011

the big year

The big year, if you're a birder, is very big, indeed. Probably most people who went to see The Big Year starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson had no idea that there was such a thing as competitive birding (whatever you do, don't call it bird watching.) They may not have even realized that birds had anything to do with the plot. The advertising promos for the film make it seem as if three friends go on an adventure together — one with a mid-life crisis, one facing retirement, etc., etc. But the movie, which is based on the book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik, is actually far more interesting than advertised. 

The Big Year takes us behind-the-scenes, in a gentle, humorous way, of just how competitive birding can get, when folks go in search of the prestigious title of most birds seen in a year, "the big year."

Owen Wilson plays Kenny Bostick, the current holder of the title, sighting over 700 birds in the previous year. He is a celebrity in the birding world, obsessed with both seeing the most and the rarest of species, as well as desperate to retain his title, a title which is an honor only. The person who logs the most sightings is proclaimed winner in Birder magazine, but there are no prizes or endorsements. Kind of refreshing.

Narrator Brad Harris, played by Jack Black, wants to unseat the champion and win the title — and prove to himself and especially his father (a perfectly cast cranky Brian Dennehy), that he can follow things through, that he isn't a loser. Brad has a full-time job in a nuclear plant and not much money, and must finance his big year by depleting his savings and maxing out both his and his supportive mom's (Dianne Wiest) credit cards.

Steve Martin's Stu Preissler is a wealthy executive. He is trying to retire from the rat race and do something he's always wanted to do, which is to finally take the time to indulge his interest in birds. And to combine that with having his big year.

The three men eventually start crossing paths as they crisscross their way across the country. One of the best aspects of The Big Year is all the beautiful places the birders go to find that elusive snowy white owl, pink footed goose, or red spotted woodpecker. The audience may wonder if we are getting a better sense of their big year than the birders, who are so intent on recording their latest sighting that they may literally be missing the forest for the bird in the trees.

Their quest involves planes, trains, and automobiles as well as any other mode of transportation available to get a sight of a rare bird in transit. They take boat tours, charter planes and helicopters, and bicycle across a remote Aleutian island, all for the love of birds and to increase their count of species. At first we just watch the trio, together or separately, each elbow their way through migration patterns. But after a while it's impossible not to get caught up in the chase and feel rewarded when they (and we) catch a glimpse of an elusive hummingbird, or two bald eagles in mid-flight embrace.

Hotshot Kenny is the "pro" of the group, always with top gear, sporting the most fashionable outfits, frequently in neon colors — a rare bird with striking plumage. Although he is a villain of sorts, using his wit and skill and any devious means necessary to stay one step ahead of all potential challengers, all three characters are really nice guys — just obsessed, to an unusual degree, with birds. Like any true obsessive, they can wax on about their interest, spouting facts and figures, but can never truly tell why they are into their subject. It's mystical to them, a calling.

The three actors play versions of their usual film personas. Black has dialed down his manic energy and plays a sweet, Everyman version of his usual slacker. Martin plays a more sophisticated wild and crazy guy, and Wilson a more competitive version of his wisecracking charmer. The three work well together and against one another. There are also some fun cameos, from Angelica Huston, as a guide who has crossed paths with Kenny before, Tim Blake Nelson as another birder who is a fan of Kenny's  and occasionally teams up with him to spot a rare species, JoBeth Williams as Stu's supportive and loving wife, and Rashida Jones as a fellow birder with a great skill at doing bird calls who Brad finds very appealing. Also visible in smaller parts are Jim Parsons, Joel McHale, Kevin Pollak, Steven Weber, and Corbin Benson.

The only bum note is Rosamund Pike, who seems to be acting in another movie — in the thankless role as Kenny's wife — she wants to start a family and sits on the sidelines at home, pouting at his frequent absences. When we see the crowds of birders at peak sighting locations there are plenty of women in evidence, so the audience need not feel that women are not being represented, or that they are just happy cheerleaders or disgruntled, neglected partners. The Big Year is not just about birders, but about the competitive nature of men, three particular men who each want to be named the best birder, to secure the elusive title of the person who spotted the most species of birds in North America within one calendar year.

Directed by David Frankel (Marley and Me, The Devil Wears Prada, Miami Rhapsody), the film has clever graphics that help the audience keep track of the bird species, the running counts of Kenny, Stu and Brad, and the locations the trio travels to, which gives it at times not exactly a documentary feel, but at least a movie that wants to get most of its facts straight, even if it opens with the humorous disclaimer, "This is a true story, only the facts have been changed."

For all of its protagonists' running around, The Big Year is a relaxed comedy. There are no big yuks. The humor is low-key and aims to point out quirky aspects of the birding community, without ever resorting to ridicule. The film could have easily taken a snide tone and played its subjects for laughs, but it chose the high road. That may disappoint some viewers, who may have been expecting belly laughs, but it makes for a better film. I also couldn't help but notice that The Big Year highlights an activity that requires that people get out in the world, away from their homes, and get involved in nature. With all of the screens that control our lives — the computer, smartphones, and even movie screens — watching Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson run across fields and through forests with notebooks in hand was literally a breath of fresh air.
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