Fox really dropped the ball on marketing The Big Year, and it tanked at the box office opening weekend. This is a shame, as The Big Year is an engaging and fun look at the world of birds and birding. I watched it with my kids and they loved it. We laughed, we cried. I've seen hundreds of movies that left me shrugging with a meh? But this one was a winner.
You can go to IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes for plot summaries and more reviews. Some reviewers got it, some complained. Here's my Top 10 reasons why I think this is a worthy film that I plan to see again in the theater and own when it comes out on DVD (SPOILER ALERT: I am going to talk about specific plot elements here):
1) Magical birds. Some folks complained about the cg bird closeups--but to me they added a sense of magical realism to the film, which I thought was a great way to depict that magical moment when you connect with a bird. Steve Martin connecting with the Xantus's Hummingbird in British Columbia, Owen Wilson and Tim Blake Nelson connecting to the Great Spotted Woodpecker. Jack Black and Brian Dennehy connecting to each other and the Great Gray Owl. No, this isn't photo realism. This is magic!
2) Obsessive Compulsive Birding Disorder (OCBD). Owen Wilson's character is something we've not really seen depicted in film before--a birder so obsessed with his bird chasing quest that it destroys his marriages. This is powerful. I'll admit to my heart breaking when he throws his wife down on the bed...to leave and chase a bird. I was a wreck when he left his wife in a hospital gown at the fertility clinic when to chase another bird. While some may complain that this is over the top, it was a fitting characterization of something many of us birders are afflicted with perhaps on a less disastrous level. If you are a birder, and you don't think you suffer from this, take your nonbirding friends and relatives to a screening and see what they have to say about your own OCBD!
3) Family First. I love that Steve Martin started his own Big Year, not by leaving his family to chase the latest rarity, but by spending New Year's day skiing and being with his family. Ultimately, as with director David Frankel's other films The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me, the message of The Big Year is all about how our wants and desires can enhance or damage our personal relationships.
4) Attu. I never made it to Attu. I paid my deposit one year when I was planning my own North American big year as a starving Jack Black type of birder right out of college, but I had to let it go when I couldn't come up with the cash for the most expensive trip in North American birding. So watching a depiction of the legendary Attour style birding on Attu was amazing! Birders may complain about some of the birds referenced on the island, but that is missing the point. Attu is magical, pulsing with the possibility of rare birds. You may never make it to Attu either, and the old tradition of staying together in quonset huts is no more. So enjoy that birding tradition by proxy.
5) Pelagic Birding. One of birding's greatest traditions, depicted here in all its glory--including the seasickness and excitement of pitching to and fro on the waves in hopes of albatross, shearwaters, and petrels. If you haven't been on a pelagic trip, this will push you to sign up. If your family wonders why in the world you might do such a thing, take them to the film and let them see for themselves.
6) Other birders. Not all birding characters are as obsessed as Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. We are treated to seeing (albeit mostly in the background) dozens of other birders--including an African-American birder. These birders might look a little goofy to nonbirders, but to be honest, they aren't nearly as goofy-looking as real life birders! If The Big Year doesn't make birding cool, it at least makes it look more normal than possibly we deserve!
7) Ruby Mountain Snowcocks. My kids and I laughed the hardest during this scene where Jack Black and Steve Martin chase Siberian Snowcocks by helicopter over the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. People really do this, and it shows how crazy dedicated birders can really be.
8) Apologies. The scene where Steve Martin apologizes to Jack Black for not telling him that he is also doing a big year was one of the most honest depictions of an apology I've ever seen on film. Think about it, when was the last time you saw a character in a film apologize this honestly? A wonderful moment of film.
9) Buddies. By the end of the film, the chemistry between Jack Black and Steve Martin is wonderful. As a birder who spends too much time birding alone, I really appreciated how these two characters connected through birding.
10) Music. While there could have been much more bird music--or even characters engaging in the venerable birding tradition of creating their own bird-inspired lyrics to popular tunes--there were some great uses of music to highlight appropriate moments of the film. Will have to get the soundtrack.
Final Thoughts: While this is a movie that birders can really enjoy, it is actually probably a better movie for non-birders. While Fox obviously didn't know how to market a film about birds and birding to nonbirders, I think this light and heartfelt comedy is actually good entertainment. Are there better movies out there? Sure. But there are also many more movies out there that will make much less of a lasting impression. It is a movie for birders to celebrate and share with their nonbirding spouses, family, and friends. For nonbirders, it is a decent film with engaging characters providing insights into a unique subculture, as well as the ups and downs of following your bliss.