The Big Year is a movie about bird watching. Or, as they call it in the movie, Birding. It follows the exploits of Brad Harris (played by Jack Black from Tenacious D and The School of Rock), Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson from Wedding Crashers) and Stu Preissler (Steve Martin from, well, everything) as they embark on what is called a "big year" by birders. A big year is what it's called when a birder tries to sight as many different species of North American birds in a calendar year as possible. Bostick is the current world record holder, and he joins the competition solely to protect his record, while Brad and Stu are ambitiously gunning for him. All three men neglect their family and business lives to chase the elusive birds, trotting from Attu Island in Alaska to the Florida everglades and all points in between, all the while keeping their quest for a big year secret from each other for fear of the others sabotaging it. After a while, Brad and Stu discover that they really like each other and become friends, deciding that they will work together so that one of them can eventually beat Bostick.
The Big Year was adapted for the screen from Mark Obmascik's book by comedy veteran writer Howard Franklin (Quick Change, The Man Who Knew Too Little) and directed by the hip David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me). It's not the most knee-slapping funny film, but what it lacks in laughs it makes up for in heart, and it ends up being a very feel-good film, making statements about loyalty, honor and family. While all three men are in it to win it, they have different levels of commitment, all of them having to make tough choices between their hobby and their lives. It's an enjoyable film, but, aside from the breathtaking locations and beautiful birds, there's very little to get excited about.
There is little real conflict in The Big Year. Sure, the guys are competing against each other to see the most birds, and they are competing against themselves to set or beat records, but the closest thing to an antagonist in the film is Owen Wilson's Bostick, and the character is too likable to be taken seriously as an enemy. As much as Stu and Brad seethe over Bostick's ruthlessness and conniving, the film is too sympathetic to Bostick, showing him more as an overzealous bird enthusiast whose life priorities are out of whack than a scheming villain. Time and again he proves that birding is more important than anything to him, to the point of missing a doctor's appointment with his wife to spot a rare owl. Even still, he won't just pad his stats, insisting on actually sighting each and every bird instead of just checking it off when he gets close. It shows that he has more honor in his hobby than he has in his marriage, and by the end of the film the audience just ends up feeling sorry for him.
The songs that play during the transitions and montages in The Big Year were expertly chosen, most likely by David Frankel and experienced music supervisor Julia Michels. Whether itâs Coldplay's "When I Ruled the World" thumping while the birders trek through the snowy tundra of the Alaskan hillsides, an instrumental piano version of the Beatles' "Blackbird" playing while Stu meets his grandson for the first time, or the Eels' "I Like Birds" spinning over a montage of Brad and Stu driving and birding, the songs add familiarity and personality to the sequences. Scenes that would be so-so with a typical score have much more emotion with the great songs, and a soundtrack album would probably do pretty well in stores.
With the comedy dream team of Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson assembled, how can The Big Year not be funny? Well, there are a handful of laughs, but the film as a whole is just mildly amusing instead of the gut busting humorous that one would expect from such an experienced cast of funny men. The cast seems restrained (Black seems to be especially holding back), keeping the film from having anything more than cursory chuckles. It feels like the actors stuck completely to the script as written, a huge mistake when the cast includes improvisation masters like Martin and Black. The feeling that they're just going to take off is always there, but in the end, The Big Year just isn't much of a comedy film.