'The Big Year' Flies High
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The trailers for "The Big Year," which emphasize travel to seemingly faraway places and oodles of improbable adventure involving the buoyant likes of Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson, make the film look like "The Bucket List" minus the cancer and plus lots of comedy. This is a misleading impression that I can only presume is being deliberately encouraged by the marketers from the releasing studio, the better to obscure that fact that the film does in fact have a theme that is something wholly other, and that theme is birding.
Which is, as one of its characters takes pains to tell another, more ignorant character, quite a bit of a different thing than "bird-watching." (One is reminded of the American editor who thought the last line of Vladimir Nabokov's "Bend Sinister" was "A good night for nothing," rather than the author's extremely correct "A good night for mothing.") Birding involves collecting sightings of the seemingly near-infinite variety of winged creatures, and what birders call a "big year" involves collecting as many species as humanly possible in North America in, yup, a single year. "This is a true story," a title card announces at the beginning of the film; "only the facts have been changed." Ar ar ar.
A more incredible tale might be how director David Frankel and screenwriter Howard Franklin convinced a major studio to back a film about birders (and the movie is in fact based on a nonfiction account by Mark Obmascki), and persuaded a cast of many more than just the above-mentioned luminaries to participate in said film (the rather astonishing supporting cast include Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston, JoBeth Williams, Kevin Pollak, Rosamund Pike, and Corben frigging Bernsen, to name just a few). But I'm glad they did, because while "The Big Year" is not quite a frequent laugh-out-loud comedy romp, it's a genuinely engaging and amiable film that convincingly brings the viewer into a world that is very likely not his own.
And actually, I'm not entirely surprised that the movie attracted such a cast, because its screenplay is rife with nice character parts, and the film as a whole is a sincere and winning piece of work that almost goes out of its way to avoid standard Hollywood story "beats" and other such rigamarole, although in trying to convey the various visual Wonders Of Birding it does resort to a semi-cheesy visual effect now and again.
In any event, Wilson is perfectly cast as a cocky but amiable champion birder whose marriage to Rosamund Pike gets rocky when he hits the road to defend his "big year" record. Martin is similarly well-equipped to play a high-powered businessman who chucks his CEO-dom to pursue one passion, and finds another along the way. Black is the biggest surprise here, steadfastly underplaying his role as a near-middle-aged average joe who thinks he's very good at one thing (well, yes, that would be birding, what did you think?) and puts what he's got left of his, and his folks', lives on the line to prove it. The alliances these and other characters forge, their idiosyncrasies, odd rituals, and other specifics, are given respectful and affectionate treatment by the film. And the various plotlines tell intelligent but not overbearing stories about how obsession can wreak havoc on one person's life while opening up another's. This is one of the nicer surprises of a rather dull moviegoing month so far, and it deserves an audience.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.