Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is is his Big Year of watching birding dramas; he's in a tie at one.
Our review of The Big Year (Blu-ray), published February 22nd, 2012, is also available.
"No prize money, but the birdseed endorsements are huge."
Somehow, I opted to review a sports movie on Super Bowl Weekend. I'm writing this review around two college basketball games and, of course, the Giants and the Patriots, thus making my sports immersion complete. It's not Moneyball—the award nominee that everyone's talking about—but the less-noticed The Big Year. A comic film inspired by Mark Obmascik's nonfiction book, The Big Year follows birders as they vie to complete a Big Year, a year devoted to spotting rare birds and, perhaps, setting records. Perhaps I've started a new personal tradition…
Facts of the Case
Computer programmer and bird spotter Brad Harris (Jack Black, Kung Fu Panda) has made his mind up: he's going for his Big Year, despite the disadvantage of having a full-time job and not so much money. He's going to be traveling around the country, seeking out birds—and running into competitors, who include Stu Preissler (Steve Martin, Roxanne), a CEO who's trying hard to retire, and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson, Shanghai Noon), who set the record for spotting the most birds in a year and wants to keep it.
The Big Year first introduces viewers to Jack Black's Brad Harris, who guides us through the competitive birding with his genial voiceovers. Harris is the underdog, a divorced working stiff living with his parents. He's maxing out his credit cards to go for his Big Year, and his father (Brian Dennehy, Tommy Boy) doesn't understand his interest in birds. His favorite bird is an underdog, too: the American golden plover ("That's the bird that everyone underestimates" during a lifetime of great journeys, as he explains). Harris does have one advantage, though: a Golden Ear. That means he can recognize just about any bird by its call. Harris and Stu Preissler strike up a friendship quickly and start working together, sort of, even if they don't consider it such in so many words until well after the film's halfway mark. They're united to beat Kenny Bostick, who bickers with a boat captain who stops to look at whales on a birding run and isn't above head games, such as trying to talk Stu into a case of seasickness ("Pitching and tossing. Pitching and tossing. Pitching and tossing.").
There's always a crowd around when there's a bird spotting or a storm that's likely to bring a variety of birds down to Earth, but The Big Year mostly passes on these situations as a source of frenetic comedy. That's because the movie turns out to be more about how the characters react to situations in their personal lives that jeopardize their bird counts. The movie runs tallies on the screen all the way through, but you probably won't care by the end of the movie. The actual emphasis is hit home a tad too bluntly in Brad's speech at the end of the movie, but the performances are credible enough to make the characters' evolutions—or lack thereof—seem natural.
The expressions on Black's and Martin's faces as they spot a rare bird show their characters' sheer pleasure in birding, and the actors seem to have a genuine rapport. There's a little bit of shtick, but they become the characters well, giving the movie warmth instead of belly laughs. As the heel, Wilson stays closest to his comic persona, playing Bostick as cocky, sneaky, and singleminded. However, even Bostick gets emotional when he sees bald eagles mating in mid-air.
And yes, there is a reference to The Birds, as a woman heads outside on Attu Island with a scarf covered with bird bait. One character even calls the scene "Hitchcockian" to make sure viewers get the connection.
As near as I could tell from the credits, the locations all seemed to be around Vancouver or in the Yukon. However, the production manages to convey a sense of scope well, and it really feels like you're traveling around the country with the birders. The settings are genuinely beautiful and well-shot.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Big Year DVD includes an "extended version" which seems to be an earlier cut. The big difference is the narration. The version that made it to theaters has Jack Black doing a first-person narration, while the extended version has John Cleese (Fawlty Towers) doing it in a sort of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy style. A short bit of Cleese's work was kept in the final product, over a montage that explains what a Big Year is. The change turns out to be a big improvement, helping to give viewers more of a rooting interest. There are a few other bits—including a brief appearance by Brad's ex-wife—that didn't really fit, adding another four minutes or so to the length of the film. It's "unrated," but still a mild PG in nature.
The Big Year, with its emphasis on the character's choices rather than on the birding competition, turns out to be of different plumage than The Big Year. It has a script that tends to go for easy sentiment, but puts that script in the hands of three actors who lift it up a notch or two. The Big Year's aims may be modest, but it meets its goal of providing a comfortable, amiable movie. I doubt you'll want to run out and add it to your collection, but it's definitely a worthwhile rental.
Not guilty. Let's hope the cast lands that birdseed endorsement.
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