REVIEW: Genial Birder Comedy The Big Year Ponders Life's Big Questions, with Few Goofy Hijinks
The Big Year has such an overstuffed comedic cast that it's a shock to realize how modest and unconcerned with generating broad laughs it is. Directed by David Frankel (of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me), produced by Ben Stiller and adapted from a book by former Denver Post reporter Mark Obmascik, The Big Year is only really a comedy in that it's tonally light and doesn't ever firmly commit in another direction. Mostly, it's an earnest showcase for the subculture and annual circuit of competitive bird watching -- the preferred term for the true devotees, apparently, is "birding" -- in which the hardcore travel around the country hoping for sightings of as many species as possible, some keeping track (honor system only!) and submitting their final count to the North American Big Year contest.
If you can't begin to understand why someone would want to commit a significant amount of time and money to this activity (I'm still scratching my head over it myself), neither can many of the bemused supporting characters in the movie. One of the most commendable things about The Big Year is its willingness to allow that your passions are your passions, and while the world may not comprehend them, that doesn't mean they have to be a source of unfair mockery. The three leads all experience their own encounters with resistance and scatterings of support, but the film never makes its obsessives into easy targets. Sad sack Brad Harris (Jack Black), who narrates, tries to balance his full time job at a nuclear plant with the time and expense of his pursuit of a Big Year, the helpfulness of his mother (Dianne Wiest) countered by the uncomprehending scorn of his father (Brian Dennehy).
Then there's former hotshot New York exec Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), who has the blessings of his loving spouse (JoBeth Williams) and enough cash to make travel to places like Brownsville, Texas, and Attu Island in Alaska easy. But his former colleagues (Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale -- see what I mean about the cast?) still call on him for his business expertise, trying to lure him out of retirement. New Jersey contractor Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is the reigning champion of birding, but his competitiveness in the field has destroyed his past marriage and threatens his current one, as his wife (Rosamund Pike) grows impatient about his absences as she undergoes fertility treatments in the hopes of getting pregnant.
Genial and mild, The Big Year doesn't give in to the temptation to juice up its story with outsized caricatures or inflated dramas. Not that there's much opportunity for such things with an arc that stretches out over a year and tracks the ups and downs of people who get excited over the effect El Niño will have on migratory patterns. Instead, the film delves into pop psych questions about quality of life and the pursuit of happiness, with uneven results that are sometimes achingly on the nose -- Brad points out in voiceover that Stu's starting to confront his own mortality, though how he knows this is cause for speculation -- and other times startlingly grounded, as in the fights Kenny has with his wife, who loves him but has begun to accept he's simply not going to be there when she needs him.
The Big Year is going to disappoint anyone who shows up in search of slapstick and goofy hijinks, which is probably most of the potential audience, given the draw of the aforementioned cast (which also includes Tim Blake Nelson, Anthony Anderson, Anjelica Huston, Jim Parsons and Rashida Jones as Brad's inevitable fellow birder crush) and a trailer that gathers up everything in the film that could remotely be construed as a pratfall. The Big Year isn't enough of a success to cause anyone to seriously mourn this fact, but it does seem unfair that the picture is bound to suffer for not meeting these expectations when its aims are so completely different. In its depiction of birding and of a contest with no prize outside of recognition within a small community, The Big Year actually explores, though not deeply, success and competition and their meaning on a larger life scale. The drive that some of these characters have to be on top, whether in work or in their chosen calling, interferes with their day-to-day happiness, while another is denigrated for his lack of traditional accomplishments and his dedication to such an unconventional choice of hobby, despite the pleasure it brings him.
Wispy-slight as it may be, The Big Year deserves props for these gentle, minor philosophical explorations -- though any film that involves a character fecklessly maxing out credit cards in our current economic reality, all dreams and aspirations aside, could do with a little added introspection.