Ace birder and reigning world champion of The Big Year, Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is dining alone in a Chinese restaurant somewhere on Christmas Eve. He’s the only diner in the restaurant and the waiter and waitress have nothing to do other than bring him, and only him, his food.
He’s alone because, instead of being with his wife, he’s off on his birding expedition to protect his world’s record for bird sightings in a calendar year. We get this exchange:
Bostick: Hey guys, come over and join me at the table, there’s nothing going on and I’d like to thank you for working on Christmas Eve.
[They come over and sit down].
Bostick: I’d sure like to go to China some day and see all the different kinds of birds. Hey Chan, do you know anything about the birds in China?
Chan: Um…Peking Duck…?
Sadly, that was the funniest line in the whole film, and one of only a few, rare laugh out loud moments in the film. You’d think that with stars like Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson – that the film would be an actual comedy. Going in, visions of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – the classic Road film with Steve Martin and John Candy came to mind. Though it looks and sounds like a comedy in the trailer, and is a billed as a comedy – simply, it’s not funny enough to be a comedy. Mostly, it doesn’t even try that hard to get you to laugh.
Our three leads are in a head to head competition to win The Big Year which is a competition between folks to see who can see the most different kinds of Birds in North America in one calendar year. There’s no prizes to be won, no judges or referees – the entire thing goes on the honor system, and the top dog, er guy, get’s his picture on the cover of Birding Magazine. That’s it. We really have no rooting interest because for us, nothing is at stake.
But to win this competition, you’re pretty much going to have to give up working, living with your family, and being a productive member of society while you race around the North American continent to see the various and sundry birds that populate this part of the world.
But our guys have made this choice. Martin plays a super-wealthy CEO who wants to leave the world of high finance, with it’s messy mergers and acquisitions forever. He’s got the bucks to do it, and this is actually his second attempt at retiring. Kevin Pollack is Martin’s number two, and JoBeth Williams is his loving spouse who goes along with his plans.
Jack Black plays Brad Harris – a software programmer. He’s divorced and not too well off. He has to ask his parents (played by Brian Dennehy and Dianne Weist) to put up some money to finance his his travels. Along the way, fellow birder Ellie, played by Rashida Jones (below), appears and Black’s Harris is smitten.
Finally, that leaves Owen Wilson’s Kenny Bostick. He’s the (for lack of a better word) villain of the story. But he’s not really all that bad. He seems more misdirected and driven by ego than anything else. Why he would choose to tromp around in the snow in Alaska instead of being with his gorgeous wife, played by Rosamund Pike (below), is a question without an answer.
That’s your set up. The boys visit Wyoming, and Montana, the waters off the Oregon Coast, state parks in Washington State, the Everglades, and even Attu Island which is the farthest out of all the Aleutian Islands. In fact it is closer to Japan than it is to Alaska.
Birds are sighted and noted. Competition burns bright especially for Wilson’s Bostick. He’s not above some dirty tricks to throw the other two off the trail – but he is scrupulously honest about his bird sightings.
They all go here and there with an occasional intrusion from the real world back home. We do travel by planes, and trains, and boats and even bicycles, helicopters, and cars. And we do see some very winsome birds. But you’re going to ask – where’s the drama, and where’s the humor. The film drew such supporting actors as Anjelica Huston, Corbin Bernsen, Anthony Anderson, and even Jim Parsons of TV’s Big Bang Theory – but all of their roles have not much more than two or three spoken lines – sort of extended walk-ons. If you blink more than a few times you’ll miss Bernsen as the chopper pilot – that is, if you can recognize him beneath his Ray-Bans and headphones. Nice to see these folks working – but really you don’t see enough of them for their presences to matter at all.
If you are a city dweller, then you might enjoy seeing snow capped mountain ranges, or whales cavorting in the Pacific Northwest’s ocean, or simply walking through some beautiful forests. They got that part right. Which means that this might have been done better by NatGeo than a movie studio because the comedy and story won’t do much for you.
At the end of the day, or should I say at the end of The Big Year – you’re going to say ho hum. It’s neither bad nor good. You might get more pleasure out of going for a hike yourself than forking over some dead presidents to see this one. Wait for the DVD and then rent it if you must. But in truth this is never going to be a must-see.
The Big Year was directed by David Frankel who did a marvelous job with The Devil Wears Prada. Frankel must be part of the creative team who worked out the film’s tag line: Everyone is searching for something. That would of course include Frankel himself, who despite the stellar cast that this film has, will still be searching for his next hit movie. As they say, this one is for the Birds.