Published Oct 13, 2011We all know a birder: dressed in earth tones and clutching a walking stick, they trudge into national parks with binoculars and badass telephoto lenses. "Good for them," we say, all the while thinking they're a little cuckoo. Now, thanks to David Frankel's The Big Year, which follows three men on a yearlong quest to become America's number one birder, some of us may start to understand the avian appeal.
Based on Mark Obmascik's book, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, the title refers to a competition that has birders trying to spot the largest number of birds in a geographical area within a calendar year. The big year runs on an honour system, so no photographic evidence is necessary and there's no prize money either; it's all about the prestige of being number one. In fact, it's kind of like The Amazing Race, but with birdcalls and fish guts.
The Big Year finds businessman Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) and divorcee Brad Harris (Jack Black) vying for the top spot and the chance to dethrone the reigning champion, the insufferable Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson). At the end of a successful career, Preissler wants to do something for himself, while Harris, who quit grad school for a job he hates, is just looking for a way out. After a rocky start, the unlikely pair eventually teams up to take Bostick down. But as the months wear on, it's clear that their bird-brained competitor will sacrifice just about anything to win.
The big year takes the trio all over North America, and as they clamber for shots of pacific loons and snowy owls in sub-zero or sweltering temperatures, you begin to take a liking to them, particularly Brad. Clearly the underdog, he's got the most to lose from his big year, and the bits of comedy in the film swirl mostly around Black's character. Nestled between a much more docile Martin and Wilson's characteristic snark, buxom Black is the happy medium this film requires.
Though The Big Year has a lot going on plot-wise — Stu becoming a grandpa, Bostick's dissolving marriage and a romantic interest for Brad — you don't really mind, since these unflappable men and their esoteric pursuit are pretty endearing.
Just as television audiences become invested in teams racing around the world or tribes sparring against one another, it's abundantly clear that Frankel's thoroughly enjoyable Big Year isn't just for the birds. (Fox)