By Joan Ellis
The Big Year is a big, bad, boring movie. Boring not because it’s about birding, but because the script is lame and labored. Steve Martin, Jack Bl ack, and Owen Wilson have virtually nothing to work with and are reduced to looking silly. The only strength in this story is the birds who are beautiful and not the least bit silly.
America is home to hundreds of subcultures fueled by the personal passions of their participants. Think of antique dealers who move from show to show looking at treasures through their loupes; of model builders, of ballroom dancing contests, of collectors of documents, signatures, flags, books, and watches. Now and then a good movie is made about such a subculture. One is Spellbound, the story of the national spelling bee. Another is Wordplay, the story of Will Shortz’ annual crossword puzzle jamboree. These two films went to the hearts of those matters and gave audiences an appreciation of the passion that drives people to gather and study the things they love. Unfortunately, The Big Year does no such thing.
The premise here: three men are pursuing the title of Best Birder in the World — the person who spots the most birds in a calendar year. We learn this is done on the honor system, that identifying a bird by its song counts as much as spotting him; and we learn that pursuing the title means travel, expense, and a lot of hardship. So far, O.K.
Stu (Steve Martin) is CEO of a massive conglomerate. We know this because his name is in huge letters on the building and his staff pursues him continually by cell phone regarding a pending deal. Brad (Jack Black) has maxed out his mother’s credit card to undertake the big year and sees the title as validation of his self-worth, which at the moment he feels is zero. Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is the present title holder with 732 sightings; he’s going for gold again because he can’t bear to think of losing his identity to a replacement.
Pretending to each other that they are just birding casually, they spend a great deal of film footage flying to distant places under harsh conditions to track the birds who also fly full time but much more gracefully. Jack Black is the clumsy goofball, Owen Wilson the champ with a nasty streak, and Steve Martin the honorable CEO who misses his wife (JoBeth Williams in a nice performance as a perceptive spouse). Credit Brian Dennehey with a good Hallmark moment. The plot suggests that each birder is sorting out his life’s priorities by taking a year to follow birds, but that may be too big a thought for this movie.
The real problem here is that a fabled outdoor passion is presented as just another form of male competition. So forget the guys and look for the Rustic Bunting, the Arctic Loon, and the Pin Tailed Snipe.