The Big Year is a rare bird

Among the truisms held dearest by Hollywood is the one that says that if you can’t persuade someone that they really want to see your movie with a 30-second elevator pitch, it’ll never fly. I encountered this modern marketing concept firsthand a couple of decades ago when I was taking a screenwriting workshop. The savvy industry insiders who were teaching the class informed me, based on my capsule description, that no one would ever want to see the feminist revenge black comedy that I wanted to write, and that therefore no studio would ever buy my script. Chastened for my hubris, I accepted their wise advice and scrapped the project. Purely coincidentally, it was just about a year later that the feminist revenge black comedy Thelma and Louise put in quite a respectable showing at the box office.

I’ll bet that everyone reading this can cite several favorite films that simply can’t be shoehorned into that 30-second-description formula. Sometimes it’s because the core concept is too original to convey in so few words; in other cases it’s because what makes a great moviegoing experience just doesn’t sound like anything very exciting when you try to put it in shorthand.

A current case in point is The Big Year, directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me). The movie has only made $6 million in its first two weekends, in spite of what would seem to be a bankable cast: frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson, the ubiquitous Jack Black and reliable laugh-generator Steve Martin as the three lead characters, backed up by such stalwarts as Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy, JoBeth Williams and Anjelica Huston in supporting roles. Most of the blame for The Big Year’s lackluster box office so far must fall on the fact that a movie that can be summed up as “a story about a year in the life of three birders who are as compulsively competitive as any hockey-players” just doesn’t sound terribly compelling. One wonders how the original script, based on Mark Obmascik’s book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, ever got past the first elevator-pitch test.

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It’s a pity, really, because The Big Year turns out to be one of the most appealing and purely pleasurable movies that this reviewer has seen this year. The locations across America and the live bird footage are often spectacular: A scene in which birds by the thousands are being forced down to Earth by a powerful headwind in advance of a storm coming in off the Gulf of Mexico – a phenomenon known as “bird fallout” – has such grandeur that it brought tears to my eyes. The soundtrack is bouncy and fun. While not packing any huge plot twists, the story is more engaging than you might imagine and the interactions among the three principals are consistently funny. There’s even a moral of sorts, as all three characters confront family crises that force them to make difficult choices between being there for their loved ones when needed and being right where that elusive next bird on their checklists has just been spotted.

The basic premise is pretty simple, if offbeat: Kenny Bostick, played as a not-quite-total-jerk by Wilson, is a building contractor who has completed his “Big Year” of birding and is currently the record-holder for spotting the most different species of birds in the US in one year. His wife Jess (Rosamund Pike) is glad to have him back home, wants a baby and is struggling with fertility problems, but Bostick can’t handle the prospect of someone stealing his title and decides to do it all over again.

Meanwhile, Martin’s character Stu Preissler, the self-made billionaire head of a chemical firm, is trying very hard to retire so that he can undertake his own long-deferred Big Year. But his business associates can’t seem to mind the store properly without him around, and his son has just announced that Stu’s first grandchild is on the way.

The narrator is Jack Black’s character, Brad Harris, a divorced computer technician at a nuclear plant who hates his job and has an extraordinary gift for recognizing birdsongs; they’re what he listens to on his iPod all day long. Brad comes from a blue-collar family and can’t afford to take off work to do his Big Year. His mother (Wiest) supports his dream while his ailing father (Dennehy) derides it as a “vacation,” blaming the collapse of Brad’s marriage and the loss of a better previous job at Dell on his impractical birding obsession.

As Bostick quickly alienates his fellow birders through his cocky attitude and sometimes underhanded techniques to throw his competition off their game, Brad and Stu inevitably find each other and, after a few false starts, team up to try to outwit the “world’s best birder,” vowing that “Somebody’s got to beat him!” What little suspense there is in the story lies mostly in the resolution of questions of trust and ethics among the competitors, as well as how each will respond to the realities that arise on the home front.

I know: It doesn’t sound like any big deal; but it all works somehow. The large ensemble of oddball birders who keep running into each other at prime spotting locations, all denying publicly that they’re doing a Big Year, provides an unending supply of gentle, quirky humor, and the three principals are all as fine as one might hope. (In fact, this is the first movie that got me to like Jack Black – mainly, I suppose, because Brad isn’t the kind of gross-humored overgrown-adolescent role in which he is usually cast.) And by the end, you might just find yourself thinking of packing it all in for a year or so and wandering around this gorgeous continent checking birds off your Life List – if the important people in your life will let you.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that The Big Year will turn out to be one of those movies that grow sturdy legs through viewer word-of-mouth. It may not make much more money before it disappears from the moviehouses, but it will do much better in the DVD market. It’s a visually impressive feel-good flick that will definitely bear watching more than once. Spot it on the big screen now, before it flies away.

 

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