Unless I’m talking about garden variety birds like pigeons, sparrows, crows, turkeys, or chickens, I can say without any hesitation that I know zilch about bird watching – or birding, or whatever it is they call it. That being said, my issue with The Big Year had little to do with my lack of knowledge on the subject. It really had to do with the way the subject was presented. If a film is going to address an esoteric hobby, extra effort must be made to have it connect with an audience; those who go to see it should in some way be persuaded, or at the very least intrigued, by it. With this movie, I was no closer to understanding birding leaving the theater than I was upon entering. If anything, I felt confused and even a little bothered. On the basis of this story, I can only conclude that birding is a mentally taxing endeavor and a monumental waste of time and money.
Perhaps I could have been made to understand had birding actually been the film’s thematic center. Alas, it merely serves as a backdrop for a tame, meandering, predictable, unfocused story of the choices we make and the consequences they entail. We see this play out in not one but three subplots, none of which shows the right balance between overt comedy and contrived drama. They each have a star attached to them, namely Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. Although their characters have differing personalities, they have many things in common, the most important being that all three of them are obsessed with birding and have set forth on a big year. For those not in the know, a big year is an annual competition to spot the most bird species in North America. This involves a hell of a lot of travelling, which means it’s not just a matter of financial feasibility; it’s also about sheer mental and physical discipline, the kind I suspect most people do not possess.
The film is narrated by Brad Harris (Black), although I’m not really sure why since the story is not seen entirely from his perspective. He’s in his late thirties, he has been married once, and he barely gets by as a computer code writer, which may explain why he lives with his parents. His father (Brian Dennehy) doesn’t understand him at all, and cannot address him without revealing his bitterness and disappointment. His mother, on the other hand (Dianne Wiest), is a woman of remarkable sympathy and patience. She is, in fact, so unwaveringly supportive of her son that we don’t see her as a mother so much as a sweet, sensitive plot device. Brad’s only real passion is birding, and he possesses the uncanny ability to identify bird species by the sounds they make. His goal is to shatter the record for the most number of species spotted in one big year, which is currently in excess of 700 (I don’t recall the exact figure).
Stu Preissler (Martin) is a high-powered business executive. Despite the fact that he has it all – money, stature, respect, a loving wife (JoBeth Williams), a wonderful and expanding family – he once again finds himself torn over what direction his life should go in. Should he continue being a success, or should he finally retire? He’s leaning towards the latter, and because he too is an avid birder, he takes part in a big year. Unfortunately, his associates (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollack) aren’t letting him go without a fight; they continuously call him on his cell phone, and sometimes even show up in person, in a desperate attempt to keep him onboard. It’s always about a major deal, which usually involves unwanted attention from a rival company.
Kenny Bostick (Wilson) makes his living as a contractor. He has also made a name for himself as the best birder in the country; he currently holds the record for the largest number of sightings in a single big year. He’s now out to break his own record. This will put him in direct heated competition with Stu and Brad, who have since met, become friends, and have decided to join forces against Kenny (“Bostick!” they often say in annoyed mutters). What we take from this subplot doesn’t have much to do with Kenny’s drive to be the best of the best. It’s actually quite simple: His “calling” to be a birder, which he equates to the callings of Mozart and Gandhi, comes at the expense of a personal life. He’s married to Jessica (Rosamund Pike), a woman whose patience is understandably wearing thin.
I’m going to let slide the logistics of travelling from home to some remote part of the country at an unconvincingly constant rate. I cannot, however, overlook the fact that, strictly from the perspective of narrative, The Big Year doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Is it the story of Brad learning to reconnect with his father while at the same time allowing himself to fall in love yet again? Is it the story of Stu, who must decide what’s more important in life? Is it the story of Kenny, whose mind is so relentlessly one-tracked that he fails to notice what’s right in front of him? Black, Martin, and Wilson are not at fault, here; they all do the best they can with what they have and turn out decent, believable performances. The blame rests on the handling of the underlying concept, which inspires not interest but bewilderment.