'The Big Year' is said to be the best movie ever made about … bird watching! Yes, you heard me right. Now there’s a subject that should have them lined up around the block, fighting to get in. Maybe I’m wrong. A lot of people pay dues to join the Audubon Society. I am not one of them.
The movie is directed by David Frankel, who directed The Devil Wears Prada, so you have a right to expect something special. The story is about three grown up men who never reached maturity, chasing their dream. They call themselves “birders” and their dream happens to be searching for birds through binoculars from tree limbs, mountain tops, boat ferries … you name it. If it’s got feathers, they’re watching it. They are Stu (Steve Martin), a high-powered businessman CEO with money, fame and an understanding wife, who is willing to throw away everything he spent his life working for to watch birds; Kenny (Owen Wilson), an arrogant, selfish S.O.B. with no responsibilities and no loyalty to anybody, who even leaves his beautiful wife in the middle of sex to watch a bird migration over Houston, Texas and Brad (Jack Black), a porcine loser who doesn’t leave anybody or anything behind because he hasn’t got a girl or a job in the first place. Birders who walk away from their lives and families to devote 12 months to birding become part of a competition called “The Big Year.” The object is to see who can spot and identify the highest number of bird species in North America. No prize, no reward, no money at the end—just the pleasure of photographing a red-tailed hawk before anybody else does. Kenny is the reigning champion who lies, cheats and double-crosses his friendly rivals to hold his title while the others struggle to keep up with him. The entire movie is about how they destroy marriages, walk out on business mergers and spend their savings on airfares.
It all drags on endlessly, in the same paralyzed pace. See the ink-footed goose in Boston. Catch that flamingo in the Everglades. In the middle of setting up an oxygen tank for his father after the old man suffers a heart attack, Brad even drops everything and heads for the airport to see something with a beak. O.K. So they follow their dream, but you don’t like any of these characters while they’re doing it, and you don’t learn anything new when it’s over. The movie also includes Angelica Huston, Dianne Weist, Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak.
But even if “The Big Year” doesn’t entirely jell, it’s a movie that’s too charming to dislike. Black, Martin and Wilson have all made some painful big-screen choices of late (with the ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘The Pink Panther 2’ and ‘Drillbit Taylor’) but they all drop the slang for once and actually play characters. Yes, Black can’t resist the temptation to fall down a time or two, but they never condescend to their characters’ all-consuming passion for a pastime that many would find absurd.
I wish all the agony in The Big Year was leading up to something fascinating in the end, but the most inviting thing in the movie was the exit door.