The Big Year is arguably the best movie ever made about … bird watching? Yes, you heard me right. Now there’s a subject that should have them lined up around the block, fighting to get in. Maybe I’m wrong. A lot of people pay dues to join the Audubon Society. I am not one of them.
So we have this movie, see, directed by David Frankel, who directed The Devil Wears Prada, so you have a right to expect something special. Oh, Mona, how to break the news gently. It’s not so much awful as, well, not there at all. I mean, it disappears faster than a yellow-chested finch whose bird feeder has been invaded by raccoons. Anyway, it’s about three grown men who never reached maturity, chasing their dream. They call themselves “birders” and their dream happens to be searching for birds through binoculars from tree limbs, mountain tops, boat ferries … you name it; if it’s got feathers, they’re watching it. They are Stu (Steve Martin), a high-powered businessman CEO with money, fame and an understanding wife, who is willing to throw away everything he spent his life working for to watch birds; Kenny (Owen Wilson), an arrogant, selfish S.O.B. with no responsibilities and no loyalty to anybody, who even leaves his beautiful wife in the middle of sex to watch a bird migration over Houston, Texas; and Brad (Jack Black), a porcine loser who doesn’t leave anybody or anything behind because he hasn’t got a girl or a job in the first place. Birders who walk away from their lives and families to devote 12 months to birding become part of a competition called “The Big Year.” The object is to see who can spot and identify the highest number of bird species in North America. No prize, no reward, no money at the end—just the pleasure of photographing a red-tailed hawk before anybody else does. Kenny is the reigning champion who lies, cheats and double-crosses his friendly rivals to hold his title while the others struggle to keep up with him. The entire movie is about how they destroy marriages, walk out on business mergers and spend their savings on airfares.
In a Brownsville garbage dump, Stu spots a vulture. Kenny compares birding with Mozart’s composing. One lady birder is attacked by a mob of birds because her scarf from Bergdorf’s was used to wipe up bird bait. (“Hitchcockian,” drawls Owen Wilson in a voice as boiled as an owl.) It all drags on endlessly, in the same paralyzed pace. See the ink-footed goose in Boston. Catch that flamingo in the Everglades. From Des Moines to Yosemite National Park to Galveston while the guys hop into boats, helicopters and rented cars. In the middle of setting up an oxygen tank for his father after the old man suffers a heart attack, Brad even drops everything and heads for the airport to see something with a beak. O.K., so they follow their dream, but you don’t like any of these jerks while they’re doing it, and you don’t learn anything new when it’s over.
You do see a lot of gnatcatchers, plovers, terns, grosbeaks, titmice, teals, scamps, yellow throats, sapsuckers, egrets, gulls, woodpeckers and dippers while the sound track plays a song called “I Like Birds.” I found them immensely more appealing than the people who were chasing them. Steve Martin has isolated moments trying in vain to choke some humor out of a film that is only slightly less amusing than a case of bird fever, but he’s got his work cut out for him sharing the screen with Jack Black and Owen Wilson, two of the screen’s most annoying unsolved mysteries. Woody Allen knew exactly what to do with Mr. Wilson’s flaws, capitalizing on his broken nose and an irritating voice that forms exaggerated vowels that stay lodged in his sinus cavities. Jimmy Stewart had an annoying voice too, but he could act. I’m not sure anyone knows what to do with Jack Black. If they do, it’s a carefully guarded secret.
I wish all the agony in The Big Year was leading up to something fascinating in the end, but the most inviting thing in the movie was the exit door.
THE BIG YEAR
Running Time 90 minutes
Written by Howard Franklin
Directed by David Frankel
Starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin