The Big Year has moments where it can almost be a great movie, but fails to live up to the talent of its tremendous cast. Instead, we get a comedy with a couple of laughs and a lot of wasted potential.
Inspired by Mark Obmascik's book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, the film was directed by David Frankel (Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada) with a screenplay by Howard Franklin (Quick Change).
Along with the comedic talent of the main three stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, the film has a ton of great cameos and supporting actors – including the legendary John Cleese as the narrator, Rosamund Pike, Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Anthony Anderson, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Jim Parsons, Anjelica Huston, Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson, Steven Weber, and Barry Shabaka Henley.
The film follows “Birders” (birdwatchers) CEO and rich businessman Stu Preissler (Martin), computer programmer Brad Harris (Black), and married man Kenny Bostick (Wilson). The narrator informs the audience that all three men have decided to undertake a Big Year – a competition among Birders to spot the most species of birds in a single year.
The competition is pretty much an unofficial type thing and it works on the honor system of the Birders. To win, the competitors pretty much have to give up their lives and crisscross the country in an attempt to spot or hear different birds – there is even a hotline set up to tip Birders off to where rare species have been sighted.
Kenny is the current record-holder, but is obsessed with defending his title and not letting another Birder have a chance to take it. He is not above the occasional cheap trick (such as getting Stu seasick so he wouldn’t be able to watch for birds) to throw the other Birders off and knows how to manipulate pretty much any situation.
Kenny is also willing to sacrifice his marriage for his hobby, and is on wife number three when his Big Year quest takes off. At first, his wife (Pike) is somewhat supportive, but she wants Kenny home and wants to start a family. Kenny swears he wants these things as well, but is willing to leave her waiting at the fertility clinic for a chance to spot the next rare owl. He may be on track to break his own record, but he could also be breaking his latest marriage.
Stu has had a great life with his wife (Williams) and has always wanted to do a Big Year. He has retired from his company, much to the disappointment of his two partners (Pollak and McHale) and gotten his wife’s permission to pursue a Big Year – even though it means missing holidays and time with her. He has promised he will do it and then they will leave their retirement days together.
He wants to beat Kenny (who is a bit of a pompous ass and a tad shady), but he is also just really in it for the love of watching birds. He also bonds with Harris – even teaming with him in an attempt to beat Kenny.
Brad is a bit of a loser stuck in a mediocre job. He is divorced and his parents don’t understand his love of Birding – especially his father (the great Dennehy). His mother (Wiest) is more supportive and even helps fund his Big Year quest (Brad works fulltime, and practically goes broke trying to win). Brad is also the romantic of the bunch as he is on a quest to win the love of fellow Birder Ellie (Jones).
All three men are forced to put their quest to the side for various personal reasons, and see their quest put to the test due to outside interest (Brad’s dad has a heart attack and Stu becomes a grandfather). Naturally, they can’t stay away from the birds long and the film is a race to the finish to see who can win.
By the time it is over, the film isn’t that bad, but it should have been much better given the amount of talent involved. The three main characters are comfortable in their roles, and manage to bring the occasional laugh. They are all likeable, funny and even given the chance to show off their dramatic ability – Martin’s character holding his grandson for the first time, Black’s character dealing with his father, and Wilson’s Kenny realizing what the Big Year has cost him.
Although it lacks the laughs from time to time, The Big Year is a beautiful film to watch. Frankel and company do a great job capturing the nature where our characters trek - not to mention the beautiful birds (the real stars of the film).
Since the movie is about birds and nature, I like that the film crew and stars traveled all over the place for location shooting rather than just using green screens to fake being there.
Cleese’s narration gives the film almost a documentary feel at times, and provides a bit of humor to keep you interested in watching. It is also fun to play “spot the star” as various people pop up for their cameos (Huston’s was the best with Nelson being the second funniest).
On Blu-ray, the film looks incredible and the format really brings out the lush colors of the locations and birds. It comes loaded with a gag reel, deleted scenes, and a look at the making of the movie. The Blu-ray also includes the theatrical and an extended version of the movie.
The Big Year isn’t a horrible film, but it isn’t as good as it should have been. With all the talent involved, this movie should have been a laugh a minute and instead only gives you a couple of truly funny parts (like when the woman is attacked by birds “Hitchcock style”). I enjoyed parts of it, but not enough to want to watch it more than once.
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