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Movie Review: 'The Big Year' – Bird Watching with Star Power

Jack Black, Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and a strong strong supporting cast manage to make bird watching interesting.

The Big Year is a movie about a group of men who spend an entire year and massive amounts of money pursuing a hobby that is esoteric-bordering-on-ridiculous. In the process they repeatedly neglect their family and business responsibilities and generally behaving like obsessed weirdos. That said, the film is well-made, well-acted and at times very touching.

The film is set in the world of "birding," or competitive birdwatching, in which freelance adventurers spend an entire calendar year (known as "doing a big year") traveling the country to see or hear as many different species of birds as they can. This "sport," which simultaneously requires a whole lot of money and time on your hands, doesn't appear to have any official governing body or prize money, and seems to be of little consequence to anyone not pursuing the "big year" themselves.

The protagonist is Brad (Jack Black), a divorced, overweight sad sack in his mid-thirties who appears to live with his parents. Others pursuing the bird record are reigning record holder Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) and a retiring Manhattan CEO (Steve Martin). The three men travel all corners of the nation, from the Florida Keys to remote islands in Alaska, regardless of whatever financial or family peril it causes.

Black, despite having a mother (Dianne Weist) who supports his hobby unconditionally regardless of how many credit cards he maxes out, has a father (Brian Dennehy) less than enamored, before making an abrupt late-film conversion. Martin has two underlings (Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale) constantly asking him to swoop in and save his company, while Wilson's eager-to-be-pregnant wife (Rosamund Pike) is less-than-thrilled with her husband spending an entire year absent.

The film's impressively deep supporting cast also includes Rashida Jones as a potential love interest of Black, Anjelica Huston as a sea captain, Tim Blake Nelson as Wilson's sometime sidekick and Jim Parsons (Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) as a blogger following the bird race.

Director David Frankel is an expert at wringing very good movies out of less-than-stellar material. His The Devil Wears Prada is unquestionably the best movie ever adapted from a chick-lit novel, and while I dreaded seeing his adaptation of Marley and Me, which also starred Wilson, I was almost blown away by how much I liked it.

He does a decent job here, adapting Mark Obmascik's book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession. The photography of the birds is never less than gorgeous. He also makes good use of the many locations. There are some fun geographical touches – perhaps my favorite moment was a scene in which Wilson eats dinner, alone, on Christmas night in an otherwise-empty Chinese restaurant in Duluth, Minn. This scene makes one thing clear: there aren't any Jewish people in Duluth, Minn.

The story is well-told and the character arcs make sense, and there are some very moving moments and genuine laughs. Black dials it way back from what we're used to seeing form him. His manic comedic persona may be beyond played out at this point, but he's always been a likable and skilled dramatic actor. Martin is fine too and it's nice to once again see him and a heavyset companion traveling the country using multiple means of transportation.

Wilson is less successful. His character was likely written as much more despicable than Wilson plays him. In one scene, Wilson declines to appear at his wife's fertility treatment in order to chase another bird, which the film doesn't treat as nearly the monstrous act that it is.

That's the mistake The Big Year repeatedly makes. It does enough establishing of the bird-watching world to make us care about it, but NOT enough to make these characters' choices in any way justifiable. 

 When something happens to one of the characters' loved ones, you'd think that guy would react by spending more time with that loved one, not going back out on the bird trail. Similarly, the sequence in which Martin becomes a grandfather and is therefore further inspired in his birding quest is sweet, but perhaps the birth should have inspired him to, I don't know, spend some actual time with his new grandson.

If someone is spending a whole year away from their family, they'd better have a good reason. Military service? Work obligations that are necessary for the family's financial security? Pursuit of a dream that could lead to untold riches? Those i understand.  A bird-watching record with no prize money? I don't know.  

Of course, I also renew my usual 2011 movie objection: the problems of these people don't amount to a hill of beans in a world with 9.1% unemployment, especially when those problems consist of not having seen the right bird at the right time. This is especially the case when we find out Black's character maxed out six credit cards to see the birds – we're supposed to admire his resolve, but haven't the last few years shown us that sort of thing isn't generally wise?

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The Silver Screen Rating: 3 star (out of 5)

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Roll Credits: The Big Year

Directed by: David Frankel

Starring: Jack Black, Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, Rashida Jones, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Weist, Rosamund Pike, Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale

Rated: PG

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