The Big Year: Not Just for the Birds

Big stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black go small and score in an unexpectedly sweet comedy.

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Murray Close / Twentieth Century Fox

Tim Blake Nelson, left, and Owen Wilson look to the skies for inspiration in a scene from The Big Year.

One of the wives in the slight but affable comedy The Big Year watches as her husband Stu (Steve Martin) vies with his adult son for bragging rights in a skiing contest. “They’re men, dear,” Edith (JoBeth Williams) says to her daughter-in-law, sounding fond, resigned and also slightly patronizing. Stu is about to spend a year trying, along with two other men (Owen Wilson and Jack Black), for the unusual honor of being named the world’s best birder. “If they ever stop competing, they die.”

Yuck. If The Big Year only offered proof of this sweeping generalization it might be a chest-thumping extravaganza that does no favors to men or the women who gaze fondly upon them. But director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me) goes for an underlying message about how the joy of experience — spending a calendar year racking up sightings of hundreds of distinct bird species — trumps the thrill of trouncing others. That sounds awfully greeting-card-ish, but The Big Year works as a light, candy-bright comedy in the City Slickers vein: a live-action movie with grownups and without talking animals, suitable for the whole family.

A Big Year competition does takes place annually in North America. It’s casual in the sense that no one enters; they just start, and all results are reported on the honor system. Mark Obmasik chronicled the 1998 competition in his 2004 book of the same name, which provided the loose basis for Howard Franklin’s screenplay. In that banner year, three men each spotted over 700 species. If the movie is true to life, this almost quaint endeavor to glimpse and identify the small, winged gems of nature can also be a selfish enterprise, involving considerable sacrifice to personal and professional relationships, not to mention incurring vast travel expenses entailed in ditching one’s regular life to dash off to remote locations at a moment’s notice.

Two of the competitors can well afford it. Reigning champion Kenny Bostick’s (Wilson) only responsibility seems to be to get his pretty, fertility-challenged wife Jess (Rosamund Pike) pregnant, an obligation most would enjoy. But Kenny is more interested in birding. “It’s my calling,” he tells Jess. “Like Gandhi?” she says, arching an eyebrow. Business tycoon Stu Preissler could retire in style, if his needy employees (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak) and personal work ethic would allow it; Stu’s hopes his Big Year will help him transition into retirement.

The underdog is Brad Harris (Jack Black), a computer whiz who moved in with his crabby father (Brian Dennehy) and supportive mother (Dianne Wiest) after getting ditched by his wife for his bird obsession. He maxes out six credit cards in pursuit of the title, and has to continue to work full time, but is blessed with an extraordinarily sharp ear for bird sounds.

Black fans may hardly recognize him, because for once he plays a person instead of a walking comedy mask atop a Buddha belly. For the first time in years I didn’t want to run in the opposite direction from his smirk. I even rooted for him to get the lady birder (Rashida Jones) they keep bumping into, even though she’s a little too good to be true (she’s working on a gentler ambition, building up her life list of birds spotted, not a Big Year). With three male leads who tend to be big forces of nature themselves, the movie could have been a bravado fest, but instead they all play it small. Martin has seemed like he’s faking something ever since his moved into the post Father of the Bride phase of his career, but he seems more comfortable playing fatherly opposite Black than usual.

It’s not often that a mainstream movie focuses on an eccentric subset of the population without turning them into grotesques or cute little goofballs. These birders have technology on their side — a blogger named Ichabod Crane (Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons) keeps everyone up to date on the race and they get daily phone updates about obscure sightings. But there is still a quixotic aspect to searching for something so elusive in vast and varied landscapes, and the movie captures something of that. Frankel shows the birders fanning out across the rugged terrain of the avian paradise of Attu Island (with the Yukon subbing for the Aleutian Island) on bicycles, and as they visually bag their prey, the names of various species pop up all over the landscape, scrawled on the screen. It’s like an Easter egg hunt for adults, joyous and sweet. The Big Year competition may be fierce, but the movie is as soft as a bunny.