You have to give the filmmakers behind “The Big Year” credit for this much: In a time when Hollywood is criticized for few original thoughts, it’s safe to say that there has never been a film about competitive birdwatching before.
The term “big year” is a term birders (who abhor being called “bird watchers”) use when the most passionate, and generally wealthiest, fanatics take a full calendar year off to traipse across North America and compete for the honor of having observed the most avian species. If you think that sounds like a topic for cable’s National Geographic Channel and not a big-screen movie, well you’re right.
The film centers around three individuals: Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), Brad Harris (Jack Black) and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) who play friendly at times — and not so friendly at others — rivals in search of the honor of being top birder of 2010.
The back stories of all three men involve some sort of life crisis. Stu is the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation and he wants nothing more at this point in life than to retire and run around the continent with his binoculars.
Brad is a 35-year-old with a bad case of arrested development. He works as a computer programmer in the DC area and lives with his parents, played by the always welcome Brian Dennehy and Dianne Weist. He has saved up his money so that he too can run around following birds. Dad thinks he’s cuckoo, while mom gives him encouragement and some needed funding.
The most troubled character, though, is Kenny, referred to by others as simply Bostick, who is so preoccupied that someone will break his record of 732 different bird species observed back in 2003 that he embarks on another “big year” much to the chagrin of his wife, Jessica (Rosamund Pike) who is worried about her biological clock and wants to start a family in their oversized Bergen County home. Kenny is more obsessed with birding than he is with making his wife happy, even though it is clear that he loves her dearly.
While the background stories of the characters are interesting, there’s very little else to hold your interest once things get underway. Rashida Jones, in a prototypical role, plays a shy, sweet birder with whom Brad becomes understandably infatuated. Two wonderfully comic actors, Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale (star of NBC’s terrific “Community”), are wasted in straightlaced roles as executives in Stu’s company who keep badgering their old boss to return to headquarters to put out one business fire after another.
But Anjelica Huston shines as a weary tugboat captain with a passionate dislike for Bostick.
At a Manhattan press conference sponsored by the film’s distributor, 20th Century-Fox, Steve Martin claimed that the lead characters in the film were “passionate” and not “obsessed.” Just as the Persuaders once sang that it’s a thin line between love and hate, it’s apparently an even thinner one between passion and obsession.
I surely won’t be the only critic to use this line but it must be said: “The Big Year” is for the birds.