Big Year, The: Starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson

In theory, the excellent cast of “The Big Year,” a comedy about the unlikely subject of birding, makes the picture seem original and alluring.

The three ledas are played by Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson, andthe film has many solid actors in supporting roles, including JoBeth Williams, Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy, Anthony Anderson, Jim Parsons, and Anjelica Huston.

However, director David Frankel, who has previously scored with “Marley & Me” (2008) and “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), two sound and commercial films (especially “Devil Wears Prada,” for which Meryl Streep received an Oscar nomination) has trouble making the most of his cast, including the cengtral trio.

None of the actors gets an opportunity to break loose much–or show their considerable chops.  Sadly, the potential comic explosiveness of bringing Martin, Black, and Wilson together is not fulfilled.

Black plays the central character, Brad Harris, a slackerish lost soul.  Recently divorced, he latches onto becoming the “greatest birder in the world.”  This means, among other things, dropping everything in his ho-hum life as a nuclear power plant engineer in order to win a “Big Year.”

The “North American Big Year” is an honor-system contest to find out which birder can see the most birds in a given year.   The socio-cultural phenomenon was chronicled in Mark Obmascik’s nonfiction book “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession,” which served as the basis for this movie.

Although “The Big Year” is based on factual events, the movie plays much like a fantasy feature, especially given the current economic conditions in the U.S.  After all, the plot concerns men of a certan age and of solid resources, who are willing to spend huge amounts of money to travel anywhere in North America in order to make it into the “700 club,” which consists of elite birders who have topped 700 sightings in a year and are in striking distance of the top ranking.

Although Brad has to tear through several credit cards to keep up, he has backup from his parents (Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy).  In contrast, corporate titan Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) and world champ birder Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) have money to burn.  They never break a sweat, often making travel arrangements at the very last minute, whenever word of a unique sighting comes down the pipeline.

What could have been a very funny film turns out to be only mildly so.  To be fair, the subject–the lengths and efforts to which obsessive birders will go and the birders’ delusions and quirks–is original, even idiosyncratic.  To these guys, birding is sort of a religion; they simply cannot understand why the rest of the world does not get it.

But the execution is flawed.  “The Big Year” could have used more scenes like the one in which Kenny arrogantly shares ridiculous bird stories with a rapt audience of fellow but lesser birders.

Another aspect of the tale that could have been better is how the birders adapt the hunting strategies of their favorite birds for their dealings with others, as in the competition itself. There is a clever scene where Stu closes a huge deal using the deceptive tactics of one particularly nasty little bird that he especially admires.

One of the revelations of “The Big Year” is that birding has become for the most part a man’s sport. Frankel wants to draw humor from male competitiveness—and women rolling their eyes in response. As Stu’s wife (JoBeth Williams) drily comments on the men, “If they ever stop competing, they die.”

Women who cannot take the “roughing it” necessary to see the rarest of birds are punished in this film in what Kenny simply but aptly terms as “Hitchcockian” ways.

Frankel’s underlying point is that these guys need to grow out of their schoolyard machismo and to find a balance between their birding dreams and what matters most: their relationships, their families.

Other flaws of the narrative: “The Big Year” is the kind of holiday film where aging dads have heart attacks, then learn to accept and respect their sons; where successful businessmen find the gumption to walk away from tons of money because they now know that home is where the heart is.

Some of the family scenes are touching if also corny—as when Stu meets for the first time little Stu, his grandson and namesake—but a lot of them kill the movie’s momentum. Kenny and his wife’s scenes are particularly frustrating, as the couple goes round and round about his inattention to her and his lack of participation in her dream to have a child.

The contest is more interesting than the family material, and what this film needs more of is Brad, Stu, and Kenny getting in one another’s faces and having it out. When Brad and Stu have a blowout on a remote Alaskan island—their budding bromance having temporarily soured due to mutual betrayal—“The Big Year” suggests how much better and deeper the movie could have been.

For the most part, though, the three principals are running around North America on separate itineraries. Too bad that Frankel keeps them apart too much, which makes the movie more muted and reserved than needed to be.

Cast

Brad Harris – Jack Black

Kenny Bostick – Owen Wilson

Stu Preissler – Steve Martin

Brenda – Dianne Wiest

Raymond – Brian Dennehy

Ellie – Rashida Jones

Bill Clemont – Anthony Anderson

Edith – JoBeth Williams

Jessica – Rosamund Pike

Annie Auklet – Anjelica Huston

Crane – Jim Parsons

Credits

A 20th Century Fox release.

Directed by David Frankel.

Written by Howard Franklin.

Produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Curtis Hanson, and Karen Rosenfelt.

Cinematography, Lawrence Sher.

Editing, Mark Livolsi.

Original Music, Theodore Shapiro.

Running time: 100 minutes.