Whittling The Big Year Down to Size

The Big Year is being marketed as a comedy. It’s not. If you come to it expecting to bust a gut, you’ll leave disappointed. But if you come expecting a charming, gentle movie about birders, you’ll probably like it more. The trouble is, with over-the-top comic actors like Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black on board, we’re expecting a truckload of silliness. That’s it—come on back, come on back. OK, dump it right here! But no, that truck is empty. No silliness. Just a little obsessive-compulsive birding.

Owen Wilson is the reigning king of the birders. Steve Martin is the retiring executive who has the best chance of beating his record. And Jack Black is the talented up-and-comer. Each sacrifices everything else in his life for the sake of winning The Big Year, a competition among birders to see who can document the most birds in one calendar year. At least two of the three will discover that what they’ve been pursuing isn’t as important as what they’ve been overlooking.

One of the movie’s problems is a surfeit of central characters. I would have been happier with any of the three leads as central. Making all three central means less screen time for each and less chance for us to identify with each. We follow the three as they pop up at various birding sites around the country. Even though they’re following the bird reports, all that travel feels very random. Add to that the fact that the pursuit of the goal takes a year, and the goal is not one bird but five hundred or so birds, and the whole movie diffuses into a frothy nothing.

I found myself wishing the movie were about, say, the Steve Martin character, with the other two as clear secondary characters—and all of them just one bird shy—the same bird—from winning the contest. And so they and a few hundred other birders descend on an unsuspecting town in pursuit of the blue-footed booby or whatever. It would have to be a picturesque town, of course—this is an American movie.

I’m not against charming movies. I liked Martin’s Roxanne. I’d see Chocolat again. But this one’s just too diffuse, with writing that should have been sharper. I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think one of the jokes in the trailer was manufactured by the trailer’s editor. Jack Black berates Steve Martin: “You bought me drinks and got what you wanted.” The next shot is of Wilson looking quizzically at Martin: “Really?” Martin replies, “You don’t want to know.” Mildly funny, I guess, but a lame gay joke. Would it have been funny if the Jack Black character were a woman? No. Not a problem in the movie, however. The scene in the movie is between Jack Black and Steve Martin. No Owen Wilson and no “You don’t want to know,” which is taken from another scene. At least that’s how I remember it. Let me know if I’m wrong.

P.S. The Sleeper liked The Big Year more than I did, and now that she knows what I think, three crows follow me wherever I go. Think I’ll have to postpone that trip to Bodega Bay.


Author: Brent Spencer

I'm a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and screenplays. My most recent book, a memoir, is Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son's Search for His Father. I live on an acreage in eastern Nebraska and teach creative writing at Creighton University. You can find out more about me and at http://brentspencerwriter.com. (Photo credit: Miriam Berkley)

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