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: