Cast Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson in a movie and you’re setting the audience up for what they expect will be a riotous comedy. And “The Big Year” could have been. Birding as a subject hasn’t been done to death, so there’s plenty of fresh ground to cover and (please don’t write me hate mail, birders) an absurd enough premise. In fact, I can’t remember anyone on TV or in the movies engaged in birding other than Miss Jane in “The Beverly Hillbillies”—who dressed like a boy scout and warbled calls in the Woods of Beverly—or John Belushi’s character in “Continental Divide,” who tried to keep up with a pretty eagle researcher.
But writers Howard Franklin and Mark Obmascik (“The Man Who Knew Too Little”) take an as-the-crow-flies approach to this film, apparently satisfied to create a mildly amusing film rather than one with ostrich-sized laughs. Based on Obmascik’s book, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, this low-energy comedy resists the urge to really mock birders and their passion, and you have to respect that. Instead, the tone is bemused, at times, as it was when we watched two men touring wine country in “Sideways,” or when we saw John Belushi’s hard-news reporter struggling like a fish-out-of-water until he got acclimated to eagle country.
I don’t have a problem with this approach. “The Big Year” is pleasant enough to watch, and I don’t fault the writers and director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”) for the type of film they opted to make—a straight, three-way competition involving three very different men with the same obsession.
But stereotypes and predictable situations abound, whether they were in the book or not (I confess, I’ve not read it). What’s more, none of the character arcs are particularly long. Champion birder Kenny Bostick (Wilson) is contractor with a new wife who’s going through infertility treatments. The minute he talks about going out in the field to protect his record of 732 sightings in a single year, we know he’s going to put birding first—even though he promised to be there to provide the sperm for their procedure and be supportive. His personality is pretty fixed. Same with wealthy CEO Stu Preissler (Martin), who’s retiring and has the full support of his wife to finally pursue his lifelong dream of competing for the Big Year title. He’s a nice guy who, like George Bailey, wants to let someone else run the business while he travels . . . but when the business needs him, you know he’s not going to walk away completely. And Brad Harris (Black) is a 36 year old whose divorce was partly caused by his obsession with birding, and whose father (Brian Dennehy) thinks what he’s doing is ridiculous. Mr. Harris is the point-of-view character for audience members who think birding silly, and so you know that something will happen to change his mind. But his son, Brad, remains basically the same nice guy throughout the film.
As angry as Bostick’s wife (Rosamund Pike) could be, she’s nice too. So is a birder that Haris falls for (Rashida Jones).
That’s an awful lot of niceness. Though top-birder Bostick does things to give himself an advantage (like trying to make a mildly seasick competitor worsen, so he misses all the sightings on a birding boat), even those tricks aren’t nearly as malicious as people are used to getting from Hollywood “villains.” In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to call Bostick a villain. He’s just a guy who’s got his priorities mixed up. Most people see worse behavior from colleagues at the office, and I think that accounts for why this film is such a low-key, pleasant film that doesn’t have much in the way of highs or lows.
We do get some gorgeous footage shot in British Columbia and the Yukon, and there are wonderful shots of birds throughout the film. But “The Big Year” offers not nearly enough suspense or tension—especially considering it’s a film about a competition. The closest we get are onscreen counters that update the total for each man.
That said, my family enjoyed “The Big Year,” with both kids voting to keep the film for further watching rather than give it away. Usually, that’s the barometer in our house. To keep it you’d want to watch it again, and even I’d have to say that while the film is predictable and a little too even-keeled for my tastes, I wouldn’t be averse to watching it with them once more. Then again, we all enjoy watching the birds we’ve attracted to our back yard.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a good one, with only a few scenes displaying a little DNR around the edges. Meanwhile, the colors and natural light—whether it’s a dramatic dawn/dusk scene or something mid-day—really draw attention to the nice level of detail and edge delineation. “The Big Year” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
The audio is a solid-enough English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that really comes to life in scenes involving more raucous birds, like seagulls. Dialogue is nicely prioritized, and it was a pleasure not having to toggle the volume up or down. While it’s not an immersive track, you notice that the sounds of birds in flight move naturally across the sound field, and if you pay attention there are plenty of ambient sounds coming out of the rear effects speakers. An English Descriptive 5.1 audio is also provided, along with a 5.1 French option and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
This combo pack comes with a DVD and Digital Copy of the film. Included are both the theatrical version and an “unrated” version. Don’t get too excited about the unrated version, because I couldn’t really tell you what was added to make it a mere three minutes longer, or if it made a difference.
The main extra is a standard behind-the-scenes feature on “The Big Migration” (18 min.), which tells how the whole cast and crew had to “migrate” to British Columbia and remote parts of the Yukon. Cast and crew talk about the challenges and the benefits of filming in such raw and beautiful country, among other things. Other than that, there’s not much here, unless you’re a fan of deleted scenes. There are a dozen of them here, totaling a little over 15 minutes—which kind of makes you wonder why the unrated version was a skimpy three minutes longer. The only other bonus feature is a six-minute gag reel, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Despite a wide October 2011 release, “The Big Year” quickly lapsed into obscurity. Now Sony is hoping people will give it a second chance in their home theaters. If you go into it not expecting big comedy, “The Big Year” can be an enjoyable diversion for an evening. But it helps if you like nature.