Movie Review: The Big Year
By Matthew Huntley
October 27, 2011
The Big Year is what you might call a hidden treasure of a movie. It’s going to slip under most people’s radar, but once they discover it, they’ll be glad they saw it and wonder why they hadn’t heard of it. After all, it stars Steven Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. But the movie isn’t just an excuse to bring these comedic actors together. I didn’t know what it was about going in, but it actually tells a heartfelt and consequential story. Sure, it’s safe and saccharine-filled, but it’s able to be these things without pushing your buttons.
In the movie, The Big Year refers to the competition birders take part in to see who can spot the most species over one calendar year. The ritual began in England when bird hunters tried to kill as many birds as possible, but it evolved into simple bird watching and modern birders go to great lengths to participate, including traveling all around the world. The rules are that one need only see or hear a particular species and tabulate their encounters. Scoring is based purely on the honor system, which is probably why there’s no cash prize. Most birders find themselves competing for good old fashioned pride and adventure.
Of course, some are more competitive than others, like Stu Preissler (Martin), Brad Harris (Black) and Kenny Bostick (Wilson). Stu is the CEO of a powerful New York City company and a workaholic. He’s already tried to retire twice, but this time he says it’s for real. His wife (JoBeth Williams) tells him it’s time for his Big Year because he’s dreamed about it for so long, which is generous of her considering they have a grandson on the way.
Brad has less tying him down. He’s divorced and works as a systems analyst. His mom (Dianne Weist) supports his decision to try a Big Year but his dad (Brian Dennehy) wants him to settle down and do something more traditional. In other words, Dennehy plays one of those typical, old-fashioned movie dads who reproves his son for not doing what’s considered normal and proper.
Kenny is married to the ever patient Jessica (Rosamund Pike), who’s eager to start a family, but even she has limits when Kenny lets his obsession for birding come between himself and other human beings. He currently holds the Big Year record but decides to do another one to see if he can surpass himself and maintain his title.
The tone of the movie is light, pleasant and warm. It mildly deconstructs these three men, who are all at various crossroads, and observes them doing what each of them defines as living while at the same time re-evaluating their lives. It’s obvious the term The Big Year goes beyond a simple bird-watching competition; for Stu, Brad and Kenny, it’s a time of reflection where each man learns what’s most important as he enters a new phase of his existence. Think of it as a coming-of-age tale for middle-aged men.
On a large scale, the story may be simple, but it’s honest and touching. It doesn’t take many risks (other than revolving around a rare hobby such as bird watching), but it involves us and we come to care about the characters, probably because they’re drawn more genuinely than over-the-top. They talk and behave the way real people might, which is why we shake our heads during the moments of slapstick or goofy humor (do we really need to see Jack Black slip and roll off a rock?). Although the movie is categorized as a comedy, it’s more appropriate to call it a light-hearted drama. I didn’t laugh during it as much as I responded to the characters’ internal dilemmas. They’re relatable because they stem from reality, though I can’t say for sure if any of the characters really existed. The movie opens with the disclaimer, “The following is based on a true story. Only the facts have been changed.”
The director is David Frankel (Marley & Me), who specializes in finding the human element behind high-concept comedies. Frankel doesn’t have a very distinct style but he’s got a lot of heart and knows how to keep a story grounded so we find it believable. Plus, I actually learned a few things while watching The Big Year (how many of us know anything about birding?). The movie either had me smiling or reflecting on my own life - not in any big way, but enough to know that Frankel and his cast are in touch with the human condition and have a good idea about the struggle to live in the moment and the need to prepare for the future. The Big Year knows this is a delicate balance and that each man has his own way of finding it.