The Big Year: Our Movie Review

By Hugh Powell
October 15, 2011

Last night, about 25 of my coworkers and their family members went to the opening of The Big Year. We had been looking forward to the movie with a mixture of excitement and apprehension: bird watching isn’t often treated kindly (or accurately) in movies, and mistakes are so common that sometimes it seems like Hollywood actually tries to get the facts wrong.

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So it was with pleasure, surprise, and great admiration for the director and stars that I came away from the movie satisfied, intrigued, amused, and even touched by what I’d seen. This film is an enjoyable tramp through America’s wilds and through the familial tangles of its three main characters. Peppered with polite humor, a bit of slapstick, and many gorgeous—and remarkably accurate—birds, this PG movie, directed by David Frankel, will entertain most any family, birding or nonbirding. In terms of suitability for kids, you’re likely to see more racy stuff in whatever previews the theater shows than in the movie itself.

Steve Martin (Stu Preissler), Jack Black (Brad Harris), and Owen Wilson (Kenny Bostick) play three men from disparate backgrounds: Stu is a high-powered CEO trying to retire; Brad is a divorced 36-year-old computer programmer who lives with his parents; Bostick is a successful New Jersey contractor who doesn’t pay enough attention to his wife.

The only thing the men have in common is birds, and the obsession to count more of them in North America in a single “Big Year” than anyone else. A strong El Niño sets up a year of extreme weather that promises to blow rarities onto the continent. None of the three stars can resist the chance to set the all-time record, though they remain cagey about their plans so as not to tip off their rivals. Throughout a year’s frantic rarity-chasing, Stu’s wife is unfailingly supportive; Bostick, who is half-heartedly trying to start a family, finds his marriage is on the line. Brad starts out single but along the way kindles a romance.

Moviegoers may have trouble accepting some of these setups and motivations, but the material comes from real life—Mark Obmascik’s book about a 1998 Big Year contest. Though the opening titles admit some facts have been changed, the script draws many of its scenes and even its most powerful moments from stories Obmascik dug out of the experiences of three real-life birders, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller (Wilson’s, Martin’s, and Black’s characters, respectively).

It can be hard to stay invested in three separate character arcs in a single movie—to follow Bostick’s soaring list and spiraling marriage; to watch Stu bulldog rival CEOs and coo to a new grandson; to feel for Brad as he seeks acceptance from a disapproving dad or stands alone, watching Bald Eagles courting in the sky. But these A-list actors bring a refreshing believability to their roles. If the movie’s laughs are subdued, it’s because the characters aren’t being stereotyped out of recognition. We can feel Brad searching for legitimacy as he eats pretzels on a motel bed and talks to his parents. His intense voice softens and finds assurance when he talks about American Golden-Plovers; he’s at least as persuasive about this nine-inch, gray-brown bird as Paul Giamatti was about pinot noir in Sideways.

When Bostick fights to save his marriage in the few spare hours before his next birding trip starts, we understand his desperation on both fronts, his inability to balance love against obsession. Stu seems the closest to peace—it’s not too much of a stretch to watch an aging millionaire reject the next soulless merger for a week in Alaskan mountains. Yet even here Martin carries the character. Treating Brad to dinner in a swank Houston restaurant, he looks successful just in the way he holds his wine glass. Even his skin, full and pink with health, looks rich.

I think birders will be impressed with the accuracy of almost all the birds in the film—be sure to stay for the flipbook of bird photos during the credits. (We’ll post a bit more about the details we noticed in a day or two.) And as Roger Ebert noted, those who aren’t at the movie to spot birds can work on their actor list, as many familiar faces show up in cameos throughout. Anjelica Huston plays a formidable seabird-trip leader, and at the point where she draws a knife on Owen Wilson I briefly thought I was watching outtakes from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

It’s true that the movie could have been funnier. In place of nonstop gags we get a gentle tour through three lives in which the scenery is made up of dozens of birds and the unusual people who gather around them. It sprinkles its jokes amid a general air of amusement at this unfamiliar world, 10 seconds of Steve Martin reprising his “Wild and Crazy Guy” dance, and exactly three pratfalls. Nonbirders are the butt of many jokes for once—rival CEOs and assorted suits, a newlywed uncharmed by rustic Attu Island—but there are insightful pokes at birders too. One of my favorite mountain birds, the Pine Grosbeak, draws a single, arch “Wow” from Stu’s nonbirding wife. It’s a sound that has deflated every birder who’s ever tried to show a bird to someone they care about.

At one point, Stu bounces a newborn on his knee and asks, “Want to go birding? Want to rhumba?” The child can’t answer yet, but sooner or later, confronted by the possibility in life, he’ll have to decide what to do. Most of us seek beauty of some kind, and the answers become our hobbies—we listen to music, we look at art, we knit or go to Nascar races, collect stamps or skydive. We go to movies, we dance the rhumba. We go birding.

If you liked the movie, check out these posts for more:


  • Just saw the movie, too, and liked it a lot. I don’t know if you write movie reviews often, but you should. Very insightful and helpful review. Thanks.

  • BicycleBirder

    A BigYearBirder without a spotting scope? Other than that great fun.

  • BirdNird

    Kenn Kaufman. lol.

  • Paul J. Baicich

    Well done!

    I thoroughly enjoyed the film.

    So far, many of the standard movie reviewers are disappointed. The film is being criticized for not reaching its potential “comedic heights.” Thankfully, this is not a movie about birding geekdom. And I think that that seems to be the source of many reviewer complaints.

    Lucky us.

    From the mainstream media, the NY TIMES probably got it right:


    P.S. Thanks for including those tips with links at the bottom of your review. These will certainly help the curious!

  • Hi Hugh!

    This is one of the very best reviews of the film I’ve read so far. As George suggests, if you don’t regularly write film reviews, well, you’re a natural!

    I agree that Brad’s description of the plover was terrific. And though I’d been hoping for some months that the movie would have a Sideways-like impact on birding, I hadn’t drawn the link to Paul Giamatti’s pinot noir speech. It’s an apt one. Well done.

    I’ve been doing a series of posts over on the ABA blog about the film. The most recent, where I also mention parallels to Sideways, is here:

    It looks like the movie is doing poorly on its opening weekend box office. I still think it will be of use as a recruitment tool for all of us who hope to bring people into a closer, more thoughtful and joyful relationship with birds.

    Good birding,


  • Rachel Dickinson

    Great review, Hugh. Here’s my two cents.

    I actually thought the first half of the movie was pretty slow — and I like slow so that’s usually not a problem for me — but in this case I think it was slow because the dialogue was stilted. That’s a writing problem. And, unfortunately, there’s an expectation of comedy because of the casting. That said, I loved all of the birds and birding trips. However, I couldn’t figure out why they changed the year from 1999. Reading about Brad trying to deal with the potential millennial meltdown problems at the nuclear plant was great. In the movie we really don’t get a good sense of how tough it was for him to work and do a big year.

    In some ways it’s like Frankel wanted it both ways — the convenience of now in terms of how the movies looked (clothes, cars, etc) but he never had the birders checking on-line for tips but rather had them calling in hot-lines. Loved the bird flip-book at the end.


  • Hugh

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Jeff—I saw your posts this morning (and maybe even a tweet the night of?). I was glad to see you mentioned Sideways too, and hope a few more people join you out on that ABA dance floor! Paul, I agree with you about the NYT reviewer coming away with the right idea. I hope other viewers do too. BicycleBirder and Rachel, we’ll soon post some other thoughts about the movie’s hits and misses. Both the lack of spotting scopes and the nearly complete omission of the Internet came up in our post-movie discussion. Thanks for writing in and I hope more viewers will share their thoughts here!

  • Charles Ziegenfus

    Some people tend to forget this was a movie, not a DOCUMENTARY. Clearly, the movie was well received by the audience in attendance.

  • Kate Atkins

    Hugh, what a lovely review. Your pen is a fine one, as always. Looking forward to seeing the film this week sometime.

  • Michi Schulenberg


    Tom took me to see the movie on Sat. I thought it was sweet. I think it may play even better for people like me who, like Stu’s wife, is on the edge of this crazy, obsessed, beautiful birding world. I got the same idea that Jeff Gordon came up with that we ought to be pushing this movie to all our non-birder friends and family as a way to understand a little our bird impaired loved ones.

  • Bird lover

    LOVE THE MOVIE!!!!!!!!!!

  • Marie Garrett

    Great review – you sound like the next Pauline Kael! Haven’t seen the film yet, but will make a point of it based on this review.

  • Dee

    ALthough I am a rudimentary birdwatcher, I really enjoyed this movie.
    I almost missed it though since one of our two larger theatres already had it down to one showing a day..
    I guess I did expect more comedy due to the actors but the insight was interesting!
    Nice change in movie ideas too!

  • Ken

    I didn’t like the film. I saw it with my girlfriend, who is not a birder, and we both felt it fell short in nearly every way imaginable. The birders rarely showed appreciation for the birds they saw–each was “listed,” and then they moved on– even when Brad saw his last rare bird, the Pink-footed Goose. The one scene we get that is awe-inspiring is the eagle mating ritual, and the one small moment we got of real interest in birds (as opposed to obsession with counting) was when Brad talked about the Pacific Golden Plover with his dad– but it hardly rivals Paul Giamatti’s revelry of Pinot Noir in “Sideways.” The humor was rarely funny, and the storyline without the birds could have been plugged into any big Hollywood movie. I don’t think non-birders (such as my girlfriend) are going to come away with any real appreciation of birds from watching “The Big Year.” Rather, they’ll likely come away with the skewed view that birders are merely “twitchers.” I was looking forward to this movie; sadly, Hollywood ruined an otherwise good book.

  • Betty C. Smith

    I read the book and am looking for theaters in the Cincinnati area showing the film. My hope is that a younger set of people begin to appreciate the world of birds. So much to enjoy and protect!

  • I also really enjoyed this review and agree that sticking around for the bird photos through the credits is really worth it. I went on opening night in my neck of the woods [Dartmouth MA] and was surprised there weren’t more people there.

    For people who read the book… did you feel that the movie did the general themes justice? I was a little sad there wasn’t more “What is Attu and why it it important?” types of stuff but I understand why they went the way they did with the constraints they had.

  • Jo Ann Eldridge

    I saw the movie with a group of birders and we all liked it very much. We understood this was a Big Year and not a time to enjoy a bird’s beauty, just count and go on. Obviously, these three men had spent time studying and enjoying their hobby in the past. Hopefully a nonbirder might be curious as to how they were able to recognize and name birds so quickly, thereby realizing the “game” of Big Year among experts.

  • Gretchen Fairweather

    I read the book The Big Year about 6 years ago and thought it was hysterical but could not believe they made a movie out of it. I went to the opening at out local theater with a group of very skeptical friends. We all loved it.

  • Bill S

    I too enjoyed the movie and appreciated Hugh’s review. I might add that the cinematography was exceptional. It reminded me that as birders we get to visit spectacular places

  • Sandra B

    I thought it was delightful and a movie that was very good for birds. It’s bound to elicit an appreciation for birds even among non-birders. Being sentimental, I actually cried through some of it. A friend describing a similar reaction to another movie may have verbalized what I felt: it is rare today to find a movie that speaks to ordinary, genuine feelings and experiences, with characters who aren’t violent or darkly twisted, just dealing with some of life’s curves.

  • Sandra

    I am a birder, and went to see The Big Year expecting or at any rate hoping for a pleasant evening of birds and humor. Well, there were some nice shots of birds for sure, but you had to wade through an awful lot of lame Hollywood-style sitcom stuff to see them. Portraying birders as gangs of goofy people tearing off in all directions to tick off sightings missed the whole point of the joy of birdwatching. In my opinion. Very disappointing.

  • J Zane

    I also read the book first, and was wondering how it would be translated to an entertaining movie for the non-birding public. Was pleasantly surprised by the results! Got a kick out of something I did not see mentioned yet: Owen Wilson’s “breeding plumage” wardrobe – those bright colors sure were eye-catching.

  • mary lou iuliani

    I loved it. Esp. the wonderful bird shots and the story was fairly true to the book.
    The Bald Eagle segment was excellant.

  • LWN

    I really enjoyed the movie but it lost a lot of credibility when the Great Spotted Woodpecker showed up. Couldn’t they have picked a more believable species? In another scene (skiing) the hawk looked out of place too.

  • Hi Hugh,

    Excellent review!
    I enjoyed the film because it brought back so many wonderful memories… pelagic trips with Debi Shearwater and birding with Sandy Komito on Attu. The movie really captured the spirit of birding.

    Here is my review of the movie:

  • Molly

    Great review and the comments are great. I’m not a birder but enjoyed the movie.

    I’d love to get a final answer if that was, in fact, an indigo bunting or another species. I thought there was red either on the wings or breast which indicates Lazuli Bunting (as someone else on this comment board said) or Blue Grosbeak.

    Anyone confirm? I can’t go back and look. I’m wicked curious.

  • scifibird

    A great spotted woodpecker? Really?
    A woodpecker of Europe and Asia? Disappointing.

  • Carlos Ross

    Not *entirely* implausible: there are verified sightings of Great Spotted Woodpecker from the Aleutians and mainland Alaska (N of Fairbanks). But not from the lower 48 of course (and certainly not Oregon).

  • susan crawford

    I loved the movie and I was reminded of the time when a snowy owl visited Cornell.Is anybody at the lab old enough to remember when, during the fall semester of 1974,a snowy owl sat for hours on a telephone pole up near the vet school? Maybe there are pictures somewhere.I was fortunate to be driving by on the way to the plantations. If I ever do a life list, guess I’ll start with that snowy owl!

  • Pat Shoupe

    A friend gave us a copy, and as avid birdwatchers, we really liked it.
    We too were skeptical, but it was quite good, and I think it will help our younger generation to want to be birders.

  • I’m sorry, but I’ve to say that people’s taste in movies is getting worse by the year. They seem to give high ratings to mindless movies and fail to appreciate the good ones.

    The Big Year is a beautiful drama-comedy picture, starring 4 of my favorite comedians – Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Jim Parsons.

    It is a touching and heart warming story, which has it’s comic points and showcases most valuable life lessons – family coming first, the price people pay for being the greatest in any field, choosing between priorities etc.

    It’s a wonderful effort and it deserves a watch, and the a minimum 8 star rating.

  • Patti Shoupe

    As an avid birder, I loved The Big Year. Of course we are older, and have been birding for 30 yrs, but we found it very accurate and a great movie with a great cast.
    I do agree with you that the younger generation or movie makers sure do not make good movies anymore.
    I would also give it 8 stars or more.

The Big Year: Our Movie Review