The Big Year review

Does this comedy about bird watching take flight, or is it a lame duck? Here's Ron's review of The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson...

Do you know anything about birding? You see, birding is the term used by people who actually engage in bird watching, but they call it birding because I guess the watching makes it too voyeuristic. There’s a dedicated community of birders, but the most hardcore of them undertake something called a ‘big year.’

Basically, you spend a year (and a fortune) to travel around the country and see as many birds as you possibly can in 365 days. Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is the top birder in the world, and he’s got the record to beat of 732 birds in a year.

However, he’s got competition. Brad Harris (Jack Black) is a divorced slacker whose only love (and only real skill) is his ability to identify birds by song. He’s going to undertake his life-long dream of embarking on a big year. Also undertaking a big year is Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), who is retiring from a Fortune 500 chemical company he started in his garage in order to travel the country and look at birds.

The challenge is to dethrone Kenny Bostick, who is as skilled as he is obnoxious. For Brad, it’s a lifelong dream and a chance to make a real mark. For Stu, it’s a lifelong dream and possibly the only big year he’ll be able to undertake. Will either of the men dethrone the hated Bostick?

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The Big Year is a very sweet, pleasant movie. It veers a little towards slapstick, especially in the beginning, but it finds its feet as a pleasant movie about interesting people with a surprisingly interesting hobby. Part of this is the movie’s middle section leaning heavily on various romance subplots, between the marriage of Stu and Edith (JoBeth Williams), Bostick’s drive to have a baby with his wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike), and Brad’s budding romance with Ellie (Rashida Jones). Some of them (Black and Jones) are very sweet.

As for Bostick, I’m not sure why we’re supposed to worry about his marriage when he’s proven himself to be a terrible person. That’s a flaw in the movie; it’s a nice attempt to humanize Bostick, but he’s not really the kind of person we can have any empathy for.

Director David Frankel has experience with this kind of comedy, thanks to previous work on The Devil Wears Prada and Marley And Me. He knows his way around an emsemble, and he does a good job balancing the storylines and working the slapstick into a more realistic setting. It’s not perfect, but it’s about as good as can be expected from the script written by Howard Franklin and based on Mark Obmascik’s book.

I imagine it’s a way to make birding interesting for people who aren’t interesting in birds, but it kind of detracts from the point of the movie. These are normal folks with an interesting hobby, the slapstick is a distraction from the incredible verbal comedy skills possessed by the stars. That said, if you’re going to go slapstick, make a slapstick comedy. If you’re going to make a witty comedy, make a witty comedy. It’s tough to combine those two elements, as well as have a dramatic subplot about troubled marriages. There’s just too much going on.

The Big Year is more sweet and pleasant than funny, which is a shame because it could have been very funny given the ingredients involved and the incredible supporting cast (including Tim Blake Nelson, Anjelica Huston, and Jim Parsons, among others). There’s just not a consistency, and the funny segments are too far apart.


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US correspondent Ron Hogan has never been a birder, but the variety of birds shown in this movie has him interested in learning about our feathered friends. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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3 out of 5