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The Big Year is a movie about competitive birdwatching, or “birding” as the film’s main characters would insist you call it, and it’s about as forgettable a movie experience as I’ve had in some time. Not atrocious, just insignificant. And that would be fine, I guess, except for the fact that this film stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, with supporting work coming from Oscar winners Dianne Wiest and Anjelica Huston, among others. There’s your disappointment; with people this talented, you’d think someone would speak up and tell director David Frankel that this movie is a boring turd. Alas, they didn’t. And I sat through it, growing more and more frustrated as every long minute passed.
Black plays Brad Harris, a 36-year-old birding fanatic who’s stuck at a job he hates and with a father (Brian Dennehy) who disapproves of his son’s aimless ways. But Brad has a goal: over the next 365 days, he’s going on a “big year,” the ultimate test for birders, during which Brad and his competitors will try to spot as many different species throughout North America during the calendar year. His fiercest opponent is Kenny Bostick (Wilson), the world-record holder who can’t help but go out every year to defend his title. They’re also joined by Stu Preissler (Martin), a just-retired executive who needs this big year to help pull him away from a company that desperately wants to keep him as its president.
Separately, these three travel across the country in search of as many birds as possible, but at a few big stops, their paths cross. Brad and Stu hit it off, both grateful to meet someone who shares the same intense passion, but Kenny, however, does whatever he can to sabotage anyone he suspects of attempting a big year. So Brad and Stu decide to team up, despite the fact that only one man can win.
This film is ultimately about people pursuing their passion, no matter what stands in their way. I just wish their passion was base jumping, wakeboarding, hopscotch or any of the billion other things more exciting (and more importantly, cinematic) than birding. There are a few nice, quaint moments, but when the money shot is just a guy looking through his binoculars at something, you’ve got a pretty major problem on your hands.
In order to amp up the adrenaline factor, Frankel busts out every trick he possibly can. There are more montages accompanied by pop songs about birds than I can count. The film’s opening is a moderately clever riff on those old instructional videos. And there’s some narration (by Brad), but that comes and goes at the necessity of the story. I’d say the director does the best he can with the cards he’s dealt, but sometimes, you need to know when to fold.
The acting is neither here nor there. Every actor is playing a variation of a character they’ve done better in the past. Wilson is the one who goes against type the most (he’s a straight-up villain here), but he’s not fleshed-out enough for the audience to really care about his arc. None of the characters are, despite the screenplay’s best attempt at doing so. We don’t care about anyone’s relationship problems or work dilemmas. If anything, we’re invested in their birding, and every minute spent away from that is a waste.
In the end, however, not even the birding can save The Big Year. It’s ineffectual enough that lambasting it any more than I already have would seem mean, but it’s pretty much a movie without any purpose and very little value. It’s not a total waste of time, but when the best thing I can say about a film is that it’s not offensively bad, I feel like I might be scraping the bottom of the compliment barrel. And with so many great films out there now, it’s not too hard to say this one is best left alone — or for hardcore birders only.
The Big Year
Directed by David Frankel
Written by Howard Franklin (screenplay), Mark Obmascik (book)
Starring: Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin