Online Exclusive: ‘The Big Year’ shows big heart

Justin Marietti

“The Big Year” derives its title and bases its story from a Mark Obmascik book of the same name. The term refers to bird watchers who spend an entire year span trying to view as many species of birds as possible. How exciting, right?

The film follows three men of extremely varying lifestyles over the course of their “big years.” Now, this movie is categorized under comedy. When I realized what it was about, I have to admit, my senses perked up a bit. I wanted to see how anyone could possibly make a movie about bird-watching that was not only worth watching, but could also make me laugh.

Steve Martin plays Stu Preissler, an extremely wealthy ex-CEO who has finally decided to retire and complete his “big year.” He even has his wife’s full blessing to do so. In all honesty, I haven’t gone to the theater to see a movie with Martin in it since 1994’s “Mixed Nuts.” It was kind of nice to see the old guy again.

Brad Harris is played by Jack Black. His character reminded me a bit of his role in “School of Rock,” only he lives with his parents instead of his brother, and he’s obsessed with bird calls instead of AC/DC. His life has been in sort of a downward spiral and he wants to do “something big.” Harris seems to be genuinely passionate about birding, but is also driven to beat the world record of the fowling phenomenon, Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson).

Bostick set his world record in the previous year, and he is aware of the impending pressure that birders will seek to put on that record. As a result, he has decided to give it another go. His life at home is shaky at best, seeing as he is barely ever around. But his desire to be recognized as the best birder the world has ever seen is much more important to him than fixing his life at home.

Preissler and Harris slowly begin a friendship, although neither one of them are willing to admit to the other that they are doing a “big year” for fear that they may sabotage themselves. And yet the two of them, as well as Bostick, are continuously in the same bird-viewing hot-spots, time after time. Although no one is willing to cough up their big secret, they all assume the others are on a big year.

The film keeps track of the progress of the three main characters with occasional on-screen scorecards and current date reports. I found myself rooting for Black and Martin’s characters, because they seemed to be doing it at least in part for the love of birds, and not just for notoriety.

“The Big Year” did have a few laughs in store, but definitely what viewers would expect from such a comic-studded cast. Overall, this film sought to prove a point about life in general and simply used bird-watching as a metaphor. The comedic moments were scattered like salt and pepper on a cheeseburger; it’s something that’s not meant to be the main course. It’s just used to add a little flavor.

I personally expected a few more laughs. Because of that, I would normally be disappointed with a movie like this. But Preissler and Harris’s characters become very likeable by the time this film wraps up, and I found some kind of satisfaction in their small victory.

I enjoyed the fact that the screenwriters didn’t try to pack humor into the story where it may not have belonged. And I have to give respect where respect is due; director David Frankel (“Marley and Me”) somehow made a movie about three men chasing after birds into something that was actually worth watching.