You know how every so often an indie movie will come out with a good cast and appropriately quirky trailer and you think, “Hm, that looks pretty good,” and then, because you don’t live in a city, it never comes to theaters anywhere near you and over the course of a year you completely forget about the movie’s existence until it pops up somewhere unexpectedly, like on a plane, for example, and you think, “Oh, I’ll watch this,” and then you do?
The Big Year (2011)
The Plot: Bird watching, or birding, is an interesting hobby to nature/wildlife enthusiasts around the world, but to Brad Harris (Jack Black), Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), it’s a way of life. Having never before met each other, the three men each embark upon a “big year,” a friendly gentleman’s competition to spot the greatest number of different species of bird in a year. Bostick is the world reigning champion, trying to keep his title; Stu is a recent retiree who’s been putting his passion on hold for too long; Brad is an aloof thirty-six year old man trying to achieve something with his life.
So, birding is pretty serious business, I guess, especially when you plan on doing it constantly and competitively for a whole year with no tangible reward at the end. As the movie gets underway, the characters develop and interact with each other, and it soon becomes apparent that the competition isn’t the driving force at the heart of this movie. Isn’t that nice? It’d be a little difficult to watch if it was really just like a sports movie about birding…unless you’re into that, I guess. No, the important thing in The Big Year is, like in all good indie movies, the interplay between human relationships and self-confidence.
It’s interesting to see exactly how birding fits into the equation. How can I sum this up? For these men, birding is not a hobby, as I’ve said, but an obsession, and all obsessions have the potential to be detrimental to the obsessed person’s personal and social lives. Like the cop who’s married to the force, or the captain who’s married to the sea, or the junkie who’s married to heroin, it’s difficult for the birder to find room for people amongst all the birds. That may sound ridiculous, but it’s surprisingly believable in The Big Year. It does make sense, as travelling the North American continent in search of birds for a year requires both time (a year, obviously) and money. The combination of prolonged absence and financial exhaustion can put strain on any relationship.
Despite this, however, you never fail to understand where Brad, Stu, and Bostick are coming from. Their motivations are very clear and, while not entirely relatable, do make sense on a certain level. Black, Martin, and Wilson perform these roles with such sincerity that it’s easy to sympathize with them, and get invested in their stories. On more than one occasion, I found myself demanding that they get their respective priorities straight, but I think you’re supposed to.
This all sounds a little heavy for an indie movie about birding, doesn’t it? Aren’t Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson all noteworthy comedians? Yeah, don’t worry, this is a comedy, but it is a very subdued comedy. There aren’t a whole lot of laugh-out-loud moments, if any. Yes, no lolzing on this flight. The humor exudes from the inherent quirkiness of the characters and the subject matter. The nice thing about this is that there are no cheap laughs. Amazingly, no one gets pooped on by a bird in this movie. Not a single person. There is no bird poop at all. None.
All in all, this was an incredibly charming, perfectly inoffensive, well-executed, lighthearted, endearing indie comedy with the appropriate doses of humor and semi-thought-provoking points about the costs of obsession and excellence. My only complaint is that it was only a hundred minutes long. I was in the air for over seven hours, I didn’t have a private screen with an extensive cinematic library at my disposal, and the other two movies shown were Parental Guidance and The Lucky One, neither of which I could bring myself to watch. I finished my book in about forty minutes and couldn’t sleep. I needed more of The Big Year.
Maybe not that much more.