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The Big Year

October 15, 2011
The Big Year

Remember how I was talking a couple weeks ago in reference to Dream House? Well I’ve gone back to watch the theatrical trailer for The Big Year, and I still wouldn’t have gotten that it’s about birding. Not “birdwatching”, which term Serious Birders view with the same disdain cavers have for “spelunker”, but competitive bird-sighting. Only in America could this become a race.

The central idea you have to buy into — and I’m still not certain I do despite having just read the Wikipedia entry — is that a “Big Year” is an informal competition among birders to see who can spot by eye or ear the greatest number of distinct species of birds within (basically) the continental United States and Canada. The record, evidently, stands in the mid-700s, though there’s a guy who passed 720 a couple weeks ago and is on a championship pace.

If all of this sounds deadly dull to you, well, you’re right. And it does take forever for The Big Year to really get off the ground, but once it does it’s actually rather sweet and charming in its way. Basically, the movie fictionalizes the Big Year of 1998. Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) holds the current record of 732 species, which both Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) and Brad Harris (Jack Black) are chasing.

Kenny’s also in the race, though he tells his wife, Jessica (Rosamund Pike), that it’s only to check out the competition and make sure nobody’s on track to beat his record. Still, she’s not happy about his taking off for most of the year while she wants their New Jersey house remodeled and they’re trying to have a baby.

Stu’s wife, Edith (JoBeth Williams) is more supportive. He’s a major CEO who built his Manhattan-based company from scratch and he’s already tried to retire once. It’s his underlings (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak) who don’t want him to go and keep trying to drag him back into business.

Brad is a computer programmer at a nuclear power plant in Maryland — which, honestly, I can totally buy a coder getting into OCD-level birding — who wants to do a Big Year to make something of himself after his marriage has ended and he’s back with his folks. His mother, Brenda (Dianne Wiest), is solidly behind him and even acts as his travel agent, though his father, Raymond (Brian Dennehy), doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.

The producers certainly didn’t skimp on the secondary cast, either; along the road we see recurring supporting performances from Jim Parsons as a birding blogger, Anjelica Huston as a tour guide running seabirding trips out of the Pacific northwest, and Tim Blake Nelson and Rashida Jones as two more regulars on the circuit.

But here’s the thing: I don’t know if this is reflective of real birding, but the movie feels hectic, and everyone involved seems to miss the forest for the trees. We’re constantly rushed this way and that in order to cram in this bird here and that bit of plot there. In fact, the movie only takes flight once it settles down on Attu for a long sequence. There is some absolutely breathtaking scenery, and yet it feels like it’s all being ignored for the species that happen to pop up here and there.

It seems to me that the great thing about a hobby like birding — and especially about something like a Big Year — is the journey. The Red-legged Kittiwake might be the only excuse that gets you out to the remotest Aleutian islands, but man, what an experience. I’d be sort of depressed if I came back from Attu and realized that all I saw there were some birds. And a Big Year must take you to dozens of amazing places like that.

The problem is that a movie is just too small to do justice to the concept. I’d love to see this done up as a twelve-part miniseries, or even as a full season. Get the Discovery Channel and National Geographic together and fund 26 hour-long episodes, each covering two weeks. Lose the rush; give the audience more than a split second picture of a bird at a time. I’m sure there will even be plenty of time for moralizing about obsession, even without a team of writers and Owen Wilson playing yet another douchebag.

Worth It: well, there are worse movies to take a family to, but I just can’t recommend it as it stands.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Liz Deluna permalink
    October 16, 2011 10:47

    For the record….I am a birdwatcher or a birder, not difference. Birder is just easier to say. Birding is what I do.
    I think you are on to something big years are a rush…but I can understand why some people do them. I am in it for the travel and beauty. Thanks for noticing that.
    But I think you missed that Harris lives by himself…his mom comes to his house to pack him for Attu. So he isn’t a total loser. I know the real guy…he is definitely not a loser.
    If you want to go birding…I can hook you up with a good time.

  2. October 16, 2011 11:29

    I think Harris’ living situation in the film is somewhat muddled. You’re right to point out the pre-Attu scene, but it seems that for every important event he’s at his parents’ house, and his father’s comments early on seem to indicate he’s somewhat dependent on them post-divorce.

    Of course, none of which is taken as any reflection on the man on which the character is based. I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I think this film is that close to the actual events.

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