The marketing for The Big Year was deceiving. With images of the film’s leads, Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson, staring in different directions with binoculars, or looking surprised for the camera, you’d think this was a slapstick comedy about three men chasing birds. Going into the film, that’s exactly what I expected, ruining the first half of the movie because I wasn’t laughing my ass off. Turns out The Big Year isn’t that kind of a film. It is a gentle, whimsical dramedy about three men chasing dreams and the sacrifices they’re willing to make. All three actors are excellent in their performances and the movie, while uneven in places, turns out to have a great deal of charm.
Black stars as Brad, a thirtysomething computer tech with a love for birding. He decides that he wants to conduct a big year, that is, traveling across North America and identifying as many species of birds as possible. In the world of birding (don’t ever call it bird watching) setting out for a big year is competitive and sometimes dangerous. Brad hopes to break the birding record, set by a savvy birder named Kenny Bostick (Wilson). A ruthless competitor, Bostick may have seen more birds than a single person in one given year, but it came at the cost of his first marriage. To the obsessed Bostick, birding is his calling; he believes it’s the only way he’ll leave his mark on the world.
Martin completes the cast of main characters as Stu, a rich, retired corporate executive whose dream of pursuing his own big year is supported by his loving wife (JoBeth Williams) and understanding son and daughter-in-law (so understanding that they’re cool that he missed the birth of his grandchild). Having understanding family members is a good thing, as Brad finds out. His gruff, blue-collar father (a reliable Brian Dennehy) thinks his son’s passion is weird. Lucky for Brad, he has a great mom (the always welcome Dianne Wiest), who wants to help her only child fulfill his lifelong dream.
Brad, Stu and Bostick begin crossing paths as groups of birders make their way across the U.S. in flocks (pun intended). Bostick proves a master at finding the rarest of birds. He doesn’t have many friends. Stu and Brad, however, form a bond that weathers two small betrayals and grows into something of the father-son relationship Brad longs for with his own dad. Once Brad and Stu begin their friendship, The Big Year starts to become a sweet little movie, one that was more suitable in the indie theaters rather than the big cineplexes. As all three men pursue their claim to birding greatness, Brad falls for an attractive birder (Rashida Jones), Stu navigates a tricky business deal (the weakest subplot) and Bostick’s 2nd marriage crumbles. In the end, all three are asking, “Is it as important to be the greatest birder in North America if you end up alone?”
All three leads are in the kinder/gentler mode of their acting tool sheds. Black utilizes the same boyish appeal he showed in Shallow Hal and The Holiday, Martin is doing a variation on the nice guy from his Cheaper by the Dozen and Father of the Bride movies, and Wilson is playing it straight, as he does in the Wes Anderson movies he’s appeared in. The Big Year also has an abundance of talent supporting the stars. Angelica Huston, Jim Parsons, Rosamund Pike, Tim Blake Nelson, Kevin Pollack, Joel McHale and Anthony Anderson all take on small roles in the film. Behind the scenes, the movie was written by Howard Franklin and directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), Curtis Hanson helped produce the movie and Ben Stiller’s production company, Red Hour, shepherded the project. The Big Year is closer in tone to the small movies that Red Hour has produced (Submarine is a recent example), rather than their high concept comedies. I wonder if The Big Year could have found an audience had it been marketed as an arthouse type dramedy (a la The Descendents) rather than a mainstream comedy?
With the release of the Blu-ray and DVD, the film now has a chance to find that audience. Rated PG, the Blu-ray comes with the following features: The Theatrical version of the film and an Extended version (which doesn’t add much to the film); 12 deleted scenes; a Gag reel; a DVD copy and a digital copy of the movie.