The Big Year is a movie that boasts a truly ridiculous concept. It’s about three grown men who participate in an informal bird-watching competition across North America to spot as many species of birds as they can. The sad part is that it’s a concept that’s actually based on a real-life competition. But ridiculous stories about silly people usually make great comedies – especially mockumentaries. That form has worked wonders for the films of Christopher Guest, Sacha Baron Cohen and television mainstays such as The Office and Modern Family. Now add comedy titans Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, and well-established director David Frankel (Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada) to play out that bird-watching concept and you have all the ingredients of a hilarious mockumentary in the vein of Best in Show, and This is Spinal Tap.
Regrettably, The Big Year is not a mockumentary. As a matter of fact, it’s not even a straight comedy. While I can’t blame studio 20th Century Fox for concealing that the film is about bird-watching, marketing it as a comedy is unforgivable. Nevertheless, as a reviewer, it’s my job to judge a film on its merits alone, and not whether its marketing was misleading or not. Unfortunately, The Big Year fails miserably on that regard as well. It’s an overlong, laugh-deprived and meandering bore that squanders the talents of Martin, Wilson and Black with a script that’s as passive and exciting as bird-watching itself.
Martin plays Stu Preissler, an amiable 60-something industrialist whose dream to participate in the titular competition is finally realized when he retires –to the chagrin of his vulture-like minions (played by Kevin Pollack and Joel McHale) who want him to keep on slogging away and making billions of dollars for them. Competing against (and later befriending) Preissler on this crazy endeavor is a perpetually broke and equally docile computer code-writer named Brad Harris (Black) who has finally saved up enough money to chase down a ‘big year’ – which, in other words means barely enough since travelling around the country to spot birds for 54 straight weekends involves spending hundreds upon thousands of dollars. But who cares about being tens of thousands of dollars in debt if you become the number one bird watcher in the country, right?
But if Harris and Preissler want to claim the crown of the world’s best birder, they’re going to have to beat Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the previous ‘Big Year’ champion and current world-record holder of most species sighted in a calendar year (728 if you were wondering). Bostick, as played by the charismatic Wilson, is a conniving competitor who will do anything it takes to defend his title from those who intend to take it from him. If that includes destroying his marriage to his fiery hot and incredibly patient wife (played by the underrated Rosamund Pike), so be it. Yup, don’t mess with this man when it comes to bird watching!
Like many mediocre comedies or in this case, light drama, The Big Year falters primarily because of its tepid screenplay. While screenwriter Howard Franklin’s script has a handful moments of genuine humanity, and is jam-packed with a ton of information about birding including terms, rules and the impressive description of the species, he never gives us any insight into why his vanilla protagonists pursue birding in the first place. What is it about birding that makes these three very diverse men leave behind their million-dollar-company, 9-5 job and wife respectively to fly thousands of miles just to set their eyes on a pink-footed duck or a snowy owl? Especially since the competition doesn’t have a prize!
Another crippling issue with The Big Year is the lack of a strong narrative arc. The three protagonists travel to hundreds of spectacularly-shot locations across the country but there’s no hill to climb, so to speak for any of the characters, unless you count the clichéd “I learned something about myself” arc. There’s no fear that Preissler or Harris have to overcome or bird that keeps eluding them. Finally, since the competition runs on the inane honor system and participants don’t need any proof to show that they spotted as many species they claim to have seen, here is very little to keep the interest of the moviegoer.
Martin, who in my eyes, has never delivered a bad performance, is predictably good here. His Preissler is a calm, collected older gentleman who is finally getting to appreciate the great outdoors that he missed during the younger years of his life. Black, the film’s main lead, is saddled with an archetypical Jack Black role (i.e., he falls a lot and makes funny faces whenever the script isn’t constricting him) and Wilson, who is coming off a career-best turn in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris once again plays a smooth-talking charisma magnet who can’t play a detestable character if his life depended on it.
Don’t let the trailers fool you! The Big Year isn’t a comedy but a light drama about three men who spend a year trying to find the most species of birds that they can find. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the film is still a laugh-deprived bore that meanders between a sweet drama and a light-hearted travelogue.