Spending 10 months traveling North America in search of birds isn't many folks' idea of a good time. Spending two hours watching Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson do it is a better time at the movies than you might think.
The Big Year is a smarter, more subdued comedy than its preview trailers suggest. We see Martin doing his wild-and-crazy-guy dance, Black behaving like a child who skipped his Ritalin, and Wilson drawling wisecracks and figure they're just coasting on what worked before. But seeing those instances in the context of David Frankel's movie defies that preconception.
Don't expect raucous laughs from The Big Year. It's a gentle smile of a movie, with humor stemming from characters in mid-to-late life crises participating in an offbeat avocation. You learn a lot about these people and their birding obsession that by the fadeout doesn't seem as odd anymore. Even if you don't know a sapsucker from a seagull, The Big Year displays unusual heart, and respect for a pastime that could easily be mocked.
Basically there are three men with lives in flux: Stu Preissler (Martin) is a successful businessman ready to retire while ambitious underlings pressure him to hang on and complete a major deal. Brad Harris (Black) is his social status opposite, a computer programmer still living with his parents. All they have in common is birding (not birdwatching, we're told) and dreams of embarking on a "big year" competition to see who can spot the most species.
Kenny Bostwick (Wilson) is the sport's Michael Jordan, whose record of 732 different species seems to be unbreakable. Kenny doesn't cheat but he does play a bit dirty, doing whatever he can to distract birders from their binoculars when a promising flock flies by. Birding is what gives Kenny his identity, no matter his success as a building contractor. Staying on top means everything to him. Unseating Kenny would mean the same to Stu and Brad.
What makes their stories more compelling is the purity of their sport. There's no trophy or prize money, only a mention in a magazine. Rules of civility apply, and counting is done on the honor system. Birders are nothing if not honorable, even Kenny when he realizes his perch is jeopardized. Frankel careens across the continent with them, making their fleeting, fluttering triumphs real for viewers.
The movie's tone suits the sport it portrays, with the occasional madcap moments seeming out of place. It may be inevitable that the movie flags a bit when the birders return home from the wilds. Frankel's movie is as refreshing as a walk in the woods and surprising as a chance encounter with the best that nature can offer. The Big Year is brittle like a bird's bones but somehow it regularly takes flight, becoming a rare species of its own.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.