“The Big Year” would be a lot better if it didn’t try so hard to be The Big Movie. This over-Hollywood-ized take on the real-life story of passionate-to-obsessed birders (don’t say “bird-watchers”) makes us wish for a documentary instead. Everything they do to make it “mainstream” and “accessible” and appealing to a mass audience just erodes the specificity that makes this world intriguing. And the trailer misrepresents the movie, making it look like the usual wild comedy we associate with Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson when instead it is mostly a drama with a few awkwardly inserted moments of slapstick. Just about the only comic moment not highlighted in the trailer is when a newlywed couple we see only once arrives on a remote island, his not having told her that what she thinks is going to be a romantic honeymoon is in a place where they will be staying in a barracks with no electricity or running water so he can see some birds.
Each year, extreme birders compete to see who can see the most birds from January 1 to December 31 by doing what they call “a big year.” Winning requires expert knowledge because they have to be able to instantly identify hundreds of species, often based only on a quick glimpse from a long distance or even just from hearing a trill. It requires absolute, unquestionable integrity. No refs, no umps, no certifiers from the Guinness Book of World Records. It is on the honor system. And most of all, like all world-class endeavors, it requires a level of ambition, determination, and focus that can cause serious damage to friendships, marriages and careers.
Martin plays a very successful corporate executive who has postponed retirement twice. His company begs him to stay, but he knows he cannot delay any longer if he wants to give the big year a try. With the warm-hearted support of his wife and grown son, he decides to give it everything he has. Black plays a software engineer at a nuclear power plant who continues to work full-time while he tries to break the all-time record set by Bostick (Wilson), a builder on his third marriage, to a wife who is trying to get pregnant. Bostick promises he will not do another big year, but when it seems that the other two are closing in on his record, he can’t stand it any more. And all three of them are off on a literal wild goose chase.
The scenery is gorgeous. The birds (at least the less obviously CGI birds) are lovely. But the personal lives of the three men are predictable and not very compelling. Screenwriter Howard Franklin zigs where he should have zagged, sticking with the real stories when he should have been shaping a more involving story arc, and failing to convey the real heart of the story, what it is that makes these people so passionate. We get a moment or two when a character explains why one species is his favorite and when all three of the main characters are briefly so transfixed by the sight of eagles mating that for a moment they forget all about competing and record-setting. We never know what makes us want to watch birds. But we do know what makes us want to watch movies and this one does not have enough of it.
Parents should know that the movie includes some mild language (“crap,” etc), a drug joke, and references to animal mating, fertility issues, and adultery. A married couple embraces passionately but there is nothing explicit. A marriage breaks up.
Family discussion: What were the biggest differences in the men’s reasons for doing a “big year?” Why was it so important to show that Bostick would not count a bird he could not identify, even if someone else did? What do you want to be remembered for, and why?
If you like this try: The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik and another remarkable true birder story, Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile, and watch the documentary “Winged Migration”