The Big Year is a film about three dedicated friends competing to win the prestigious title of “Best Birder in the World” by sighting the most species in the span of 365 days. Life lessons are learned along the way as each man quests for glory.
I saw the brilliant comedian Doug Stanhope last night and part of his monologue included repeating the last sentence of a joke over and over again. He was making a point about the laziness of songwriters versus the arduous task he faces every time he takes the stage. A songwriter can make millions off a three-minute song, half of which includes a repeating chorus. Meanwhile, Doug (and others of his ilk) is faced with the daunting chore of coming up with thousands of different words to fill an hour every time he has a gig.
I walked into the theater expecting a “songwriter” version of acting from both Jack Black and Owen Wilson – beloved men who receive hefty paychecks to repeatedly play the same roles. I’m pleased to report this is not the case here; both Black and Wilson appear to have thrown themselves into their characters. That’s not to say there aren’t recognizable qualities to their performances, but I feel they’ve both finally gone above and beyond the norm.
The cast is outstanding. The aforementioned Jack Black plays loser-ish Brad Harris, a 36-year old man who’s back to living at his folk’s house after a failed marriage, who also serves as the movie’s narrator. Steve Martin (who gets the pass from the “songwriter” analogy because he’s freakin’ Steve Martin) is Stu Preissler, an uber-successful NYC entrepreneur who’s finally given himself permission to retire in order to pursue his true passion. Owen Wilson is Kenny Bostick, a well-to-do contractor who currently holds the coveted mantle of “Best Birder in the World.”
Other notables include a nearly unrecognizable Angelica Huston as seaworthy stalwart Debi Shearwater, Joel McHale (is he following former Soup host Greg Kinnear’s career path?) as Wall Street shark Skeeter Yablans, Rashida Jones as fellow birder Carol and Jo Beth Williams as Stu’s understanding wife. Brian Dennehy and Diane Wiest are also adorable as Brad’s parents. That’s a lot of star power and director David Frankel, along with screenwriter Howard Franklin, do an excellent job of utilizing everyone with a deft interweaving of storylines.
Owen Wilson and Jack Black redeem themselves next to comedy icon Steve Martin.
It was difficult for me to relate to the passion these men feel for birding, which seems like a lovely hobby but nothing worth ruining your life over (as all three of the film’s leads come close to doing); but this movie soared (couldn’t resist) beyond my expectations. I didn’t read the source material (The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik) but what could’ve been a dull two hours sped by thanks to the chemistry of Martin, Black and Wilson. The gorgeous cinematography of the birds and locations also helped. The feathered creatures definitely deserve costar credit! I actually gasped at the majesty of some of the sightings.
I’ve read some early reviews of the flick that balk at the lack of comedy in the script. I completely disagree. It’s true – it’s not the slapstick norm we expect from Steve, Jack and Owen. But frankly that’s a relief. The comedy is there; it’s just matured and I felt elated after seeing it.
I spy something rare – an original idea in Hollywood!
Finally something fresh, original and extremely well done – it was a treat from beginning to end.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a drink: every time Stu, Brad and Kenny race off to see a bird.
Take a drink: every time you see a quality character actor get some screen time. You’ll have lots to choose from!
Take a drink: every time you root for Brad to steal Kenny’s title.
Take a drink: when you feel a life lesson creeping up on you…
The Big Year is based on a true story and Kenny Bostick’s 728 bird sightings accompany the credits. However there’s no need to stay to the very end. There are no surprise scenes after the gorgeous montage of our feathered friends ends.