The Big Year
Rated PG/Too Many Minutes
According to this film and the book it’s based on, the start of the New Year is anticipated by intensely devoted bird watchers, who call themselves “birders,” traveling the globe to spot as many different birds as humanly possible. “Birders” don’t hunt the birds, they stalk them, checking off the types they’ve encountered, then it’s off to the next far reaching location.
Three especially dedicated “birders”, played by Steve Martin, Jack Black and part-time Maui resident Owen Wilson, begin their “big year” fiercely competitive. Only after months of pursuing tweeting, winged wonders together do they start to see one another differently.
This “comedy” about obsessive bird watchers is as lame is it sounds and has no laughs. One of the main problems is that the material is in no way funny, but fascinating in a way that would be better suited for a drama or documentary. We’re supposed to laugh when Wilson runs to meet his girlfriend as she undergoes a doctor’s exam but ditches the hospital when he discovers another bird sighting is looming: this is sad, bizarre behavior. The wacky “birders” are portrayed as crazed goofballs who spend enormous amounts of money, isolate themselves from their families and spend months trekking to a single location, finding a bird for the sake of completion then running off to the next locale, in a race with no end. This kind of obsession reminds me of Vegas gamblers who can’t stop betting on a table, because they’re waiting for that Big Win to save them.
While the characters on screen constantly bird watch, the audience plays its own game of Spot The Great Actors Slumming It In Nothing Roles. On hand, to name a few, are Brian Dennehy, Anjelica Huston, Dianne Wiest, Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike and Kevin Pollack, all completely wasted. The talent behind the camera is also impressive: director David Frankel also made the hugely entertaining The Devil Wears Prada, screenwriter Howard Franklin wrote and directed one of Bill Murray’s funniest vehicles, Quick Change, and Ben Stiller and Curtis Hanson are among the producers.
Despite all involved, it’s as square as an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, only minus any style or laughs. It’s nice to look at and has a family friendly PG rating but is completely dull.
None of the relationships come across, particularly between the characters played by Martin and Black, who have no chemistry but share many scenes together. Wilson coasts here as much as his famous co-stars and no one gives a great comic performance.
The point the movie is trying to make is that, indeed, these kooky “birders” are mis-sing out on life, but the message never comes across. The actors and the movie never make us understand the attraction and appeal of “birding.” It’s supposed to be heartfelt to see these kooky people finally grow up, but we never really understand or care why they took up a hobby so costly, time consuming and (once we learn the bird count is not official but based on an honor system) pointless. This is so cornball and forgettable, the title could have been Larry Crowne II.
I actually saw the film at an early screening attended mostly by members of an Audubon and Bird Watching Society. They were mostly older adults and bird enthusiasts who really seemed to enjoy it, except for one guy: during a scene where a CGI bird flitters over to Steve Martin in slow motion, a man sitting behind angrily yelled out, “that’s not what they’d do!”