Any movie in which one of the leading men would rather race off to some far-flung spot to observe a snowy owl than impregnate an anxiously waiting Rosamund Pike automatically has something going against it but, then, The Big Year is about unreasonable obsession. That the cause of the men’s mania is birding — the proper term, we learn, for bird watching — makes this an unlikely prospect for mass audience interest. But the uniformly winning cast, led by Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, and the ultra-accessible touch provided by director David Frankel provide for a constant steam of gentle mirth, if not huge laughs. This film may not do for birds what Frankel’s last film, Marley & Me, did for dogs, but there’s a similar current of warmth and appreciation for the effect of animals on people to be felt.
The gentlemen in question are at different stages of life and crisis. Martin’s Stu Preissler is a corporate giant, a rich man ready to quit the rat race who believes he’s not entitled to spend a year chasing all over North America in order to spot as many indigenous birds in the wild as possible, no matter how hard his underlings at headquarters try to lure him back. By contrast, Black’s Brad Harris is an under-achieving, overweight computer nerd who somehow believes that winning the “big year” competition for bird spotting will justify him in the eyes of his disapproving father. Accomplishing this will be a tall order, however, as Wilson’s Kenny Bostwick, a building contractor, set the bar very high by winning the prior year’s event with 732 species sightings, a record he’ll likely not willingly relinquish.
It all seems quite silly, of course, devoting an entire year to racing around from destinations as distant as Florida and Alaska and to dozens of points in between on a mad quest to spot more diverse fowl than anyone else, especially while accompanied by crowds of like-minded fanatics. And the placid acceptance and even enthusiastic support of the women for their men’s aberrant preoccupation seems like sheerest fantasy; this isn’t Friday night with the boys at the corner bar or a couple of weeks visiting spring training camp in Arizona, it’s more than 10 months away from home. And the dollars needed for the constant flights, motels and restaurants are scarcely mentioned.
But hard as it is for an outsider to comprehend the fixation at the center of it all, it does serve as a highly scenic substitute for any other enthusiasm one could imagine. Hapily, the genial competitiveness among the trio evolves nicely and is, fortunately, not pushed into archly idiotic realms. When pressed, Kenny puns that birding is his “calling,” and he means it, insisting that, as opposed to his day job, “This is what I’ll be remembered for.”
At first, the three consider it important not to reveal that they’re plotting a “big year,” for fear of pushing the competition to more aggressive lengths. But in a charming dinner scene Stu relaxes the talkative Brad into admitting it and, before long, the two contenders enter into a pact to beat Kenny. The latter views his mission as seriously as a pro athlete takes his sport, much to the distress of his beautiful wife (Pike), whom he forces to spend altogether too much time alone.
Working from Mark Obmascik’s 2004 non-fiction tome The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, screenwriter Howard Franklin doesn’t delve too deeply into realistic life issues, which is probably just as well, as Frankel has little trouble filling out the episodic tale with amiable human comedy and settings worthy of a first-rate travelogue. Using locations mostly found in British Columbia and the Yukon to represent myriad U.S. sites, the film is a constant eyeful, not only for the backdrops but for the innumerable winged ones caught in their natural habitats; the most amazing shot is of courting bald eagles hooking talons and swirling together into a ritual free-fall.
The second most astonishing sight is of Kenny, having pledged to his wife that he’ll make his absence up to her, fleeing from his conjugal promises the moment he learns he might be able to spot the bird that’s long eluded him. It’s one thing when obsessions are driven by some deep creative or productive urge, but birding? Almost equally incredible is that a birder as fetching as Rashida Jones might take a fancy to Black’s unprepossessing nice guy, a match akin to a scarlet tanager pairing up with a penguin.
The three leads aren’t pushed to stretch at all but nor do they need to be. Their pleasing affability is amplified by the satisfaction of a supporting cast surprising deep in welcome familiar faces, beginning with Pike, Jones and Brian Dennehy, as Brad’s father, but also including Anjelica Huston, Dianne Wiest, JoBeth Williams, Tim Blake Nelson and Kevin Pollak, among others.