THE BIG YEAR is a small miracle of a movie. It makes watching birds downright THRILLING! From pipits to plovers, bobolinks to boobies, gulls to godwits, and titmice to tanagers — stop me before I go cuckoo…THE BIG YEAR is a quietly funny, absorbing flight of fancy that made my heart take wing! I, who have spent some time in front of my bird feeder trying to figure out who was going out with whom (Is that plump red romeo cardinal romancing that pale green diva?), became genuinely caught up in the lives of three men at different stages of life, but who share a common passion: BIRDING. In fact, they’re competing for a record– the most species of birds seen in North America in a single year– a BIG YEAR.
Owen Wilson plays Kenny Bostick, the smug record holder– 732 sightings– who’s surreptitiously out to protect his title. He’s apparently sacrificed several marriages to his near manic preoccupation with birds, and may be on the verge of doing it again; now married to the exquisite Rosamund Pike, it’s hard to believe he’d leave her bed to pursue the objects of his ornithological ardor. But leave he does– by land, air and sea (Anjelica Huston turns up as a crusty sea captain) whenever and wherever there’s a rare bird alert!
And RARE BIRD ALERT happens to be the name of Steve Martin’s most recent banjo album! No doubt the title was influenced by the role Martin plays here– Stu Preissler, a wealthy CEO who’s got it all: a successful international career, a long, loving marriage (his wife is played by Jobeth Williams), a close relationship with his successfully partnered adult children; but he’s always wanted to tackle a big year. As retirement looms, his moment is now.
At the other end of the spectrum is Jack Black who plays Brad Harris. His wife has left him, and he’s living at home with his devoted mom (Dianne Wiest), and disapproving dad (Brian Dennehy). Brad is a case of arrested development– but for one exceptional skill: his intense love of birds has lead him to perfect the ability to recognize the distinct warble of any winged creature. He has always dreamed of doing a big year, and sets out to break Bostick’s record.
The three meet in nature– and the race is on; for each, birding and THE BIG YEAR will be meaningful in different and unpredictable ways. The film resists the temptation to turn this premise into background for obvious jokes, silly slapstick, and male competition. In fact, most of the drama is internal, and the film actually focuses as much attention on the birds as the men! We gradually come to understand why and how these birders are possessed– and in love really! Everytime there’s a sighting, I couldn’t wait to see not only who would get there first, but also what bird they were going to see! There are divine shots of the creatures, and much fascinating info, all of it delicately intertwined with the various human dramas at issue. It’s gently funny and takes its time. One particularly moving sequence involves the sighting of a rare black owl in a snowy forest, and it was moving and magical, and sweet beyond all comprehension. Another moment hilariously alludes to Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS!
So if you’re lusting for car crashes and noisy explosions, you’re out of luck. But if you’re a bird of a different feather, and are patient, and have a keen ear, you will zero in on this charmer at your local megaplex. THE BIG YEAR is a rare bird of the cinematic kind.