Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Big Year

More elusive than a great spotted woodpecker.  Harder to locate than a pink-footed goose.  More difficult to spot than a snowy owl.   

Is anybody getting these references?

For the last fourteen months, I have been diligently trying to pin down and watch this movie The Big Year. 

And yes I get the irony.  It took me more than a year to see a film called The Big Year.  Har har.

The film is about an annual competition amongst bird watchers.  I like birds.  I don’t stalk them or anything, but I am often distracted by them when driving, and I often sit around and wonder what it would be like to be a bird, or wonder where I would fit in the social hierarchy at the bird feeder, that sort of thing.  I also like the three lead actors in the film:  Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson.   

I wanted to see The Big Year when it first came out, but I missed its theatrical release.  Why?  For one, there are few things in life I do quickly, unless it’s driving home after hearing that one of our bathroom pipes burst, as happened last weekend due to our recent cold snap.  For another, I am the father of two young children, and therefore a Very Busy Man.  This means that it typically takes me a month or more of advance planning to get to a movie these days, even one I’ve actually set my mind on seeing.  This is why I tend to see and write mostly about blockbusters; they’re the only ones that can handle my requisite lead time.  The Big Year was not a blockbuster.

Having missed my opportunity, I intended to take up in hot pursuit of the film once it was released on DVD.  However, unlike ultra-ambitious bird-spotting champion Kenny Bostick in the movie, I constrained myself to using only using the most ethical and legitimate methods, which for me includes Netflix’s streaming service, Redbox, and the local library – but not paying more than a buck fifty, or poaching the movie illegally online.  I struck out repeatedly with all three of my sources, and was just about ready to acknowledge that I would probably have to wait for it to pop up somewhere on regular cable. 

The problem with watching a movie you haven’t seen before on regular cable (excluding Turner Classic Movies, thank God), is that you just don’t know how it’s been edited.  They always throw that disclaimer up on the screen before the film: “Edited for content, and to run in the time allowed.”  With that kind of a free hand, almost anything could be cut in order to make sure they get the right number of Geico commercials in.  And since you have no way of knowing exactly what’s been taken out, you can’t help but feel like you’re watching an incomplete movie.  It doesn’t matter what they actually do with the film; they could show the whole thing in its entirety.  They could unbleep the curse words, and unblur the T&A, but I would still feel wrong about watching it, all because of that stupid disclaimer. 

Luckily, I was spared such a fate by the HBO/Starz/Cinemax/Showtime free preview last weekend, although I almost managed to miss The Big Year boat yet again.  When I heard this gratis premium-channel-palooza was coming, I went straight to the TV and started scanning through 72 hours of programming on twenty-something channels for movies I wanted to record.  In my haste, though, I forgot to look specifically for The Big Year.   I missed it, in spite of excellent peripheral vision, although I think that had a lot to do with the fact that they had scheduled the whale-rescue movie The Big Miracle for about fifty showings over the weekend, and I eventually stopped paying attention.   Fortunately for me, Elizabeth didn’t, and, having heard me talk about finding that movie the way birders talk about finding the rare and elusive elegant trogon, she trapped it unharmed on our DVR while I was gone over the weekend.

Baby, you’re the greatest.

So, you might remember hearing something about The Big Year.  It’s the story of three men who are competing to break the all-time record for total number of bird species sightings within one calendar year.  And before you ask; yes, this is apparently something that real people do in real life.  The movie claims to be a true story, at any rate.  It stars three famous comedic actors:  Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black.

With its premise of three men competing in a low-testosterone activity like birding, add three proven funny male actors, and I think most people expected The Big Year to be chock-full of zany character humor, non-stop situational hi-jinks, and uproarious slapstick comedy. 

The Big Year has very little of these things; alright, none that I can recall, which I think goes a long way towards explaining why I’ve had such a hard time finding it since it left theaters.  This film appears to have been expeditiously consigned to that special level of movie hell where comedies that fail to meet audience’s expectations are often relegated, like Ishtar and Dick Tracy (wait, those weren’t comedies?!). 
Sometimes...'s for the best.
But The Big Year is worthy of at least one look, as long as the person doing the looking doesn’t need Steve Martin to be ‘wild and crazy,’ or even ‘incorrigible and slightly unbalanced.’  Would you settle for ‘perfectly sane and possibly sedated?’  And if your enjoyment of a Jack Black movie requires that he chew through scenery like the Tasmanian Devil on a binge, you’ve got the wrong film. Oh, and yes Owen Wilson has some funny moments, but no, he doesn’t drag Ben Stiller into the film (unless it was in that scene with that unnaturally large loon?), so if that’s what you’re into, you might want to consider watching Starsky and Hutch again.

There, that ought to clear out 90% of the remaining crowd likely to be highly disappointed by this film. 

I didn’t need any of those things, and so I enjoyed the movie.  I like that it wasn’t afraid of being a little obscure, and working in some of the esoteric details of birdwatching.  Competitive birding, as it is depicted here, is a world of instant rare-bird alerts, sudden jaunts to the edges of the continent, and rapt attention paid to the national weather forecast as well as global weather patterns.  To what degree the film accurately depicts the reality of competitive birding is assuredly debatable, but of course first you’d have to find someone to debate it with.  Yet ultimately it felt like the film provided some sense of what it’s like to be a hard-core birder (and yes, I realize that sounds like an oxymoron).  I like that because I’m lazy, and because whenever possible I like to get an idea of the things other people like to do without having to do them myself.  

Each of the three main characters starts the year off with the intent of not letting anyone else know that they are, in fact, in the big year competition.  However, you’d have to be pretty dim not know who’s in it to win it when the same people keep turning up in the same places, whether that’s on a small boat off the coast of Washington, or on the same migratory focal point along the Gulf Coast, or in the same Quonset hut in the Aleutian Islands.  Still, they all avoid the question and try to keep the others guessing as long as they can.   Brad (Jack Black) is the first to confess, which he does in confidence to Stu (Steve Martin).  Stu, meanwhile, plays his cards closer to the vest, although he is soon inadvertently exposed.  Bostick (Owen Wilson) unapologetically hedges and misleads the others as much as possible, even though few have doubts about his intent.  The main conflict, and much of the film’s wry, low-key humor, come from the Bostick’s efforts to distance himself from his rivals.   

When it comes to films about challenging records and cut-throat competition in an oddly unexpectedly arena, I don’t think anything beats The King of Kong:  A Fistful of Quarters, the documentary about two rivals in a high-stakes battle for Donkey Kong supremecy (yes, the 80’s arcade game).  The Big Year doesn’t really come close to nailing that kind of maniacal, Ahabian kind of compulsion.  But what The Big Year does really well is to portray, primarily thanks to Jack Black, the pure enthusiasm and appreciation people have for the things they are really passionate about.  In this case, it happens to be birds. 

As an actor, Black seems to have a unique ability to express the depth and breadth of joy that comes from being a truly devoted fan.   Who in film better communicates sweet, sincere adoration?  Think of his role in School of Rock.  Or, even better, how about Po in the Kung Fu Panda movies.  Po’s intrinsically pure, completely earnest love of martial arts and its masters serves as the very foundation of those films.  It comes through in his voice, and the character’s mannerisms, which are merely animated versions of Black’s own movements.  In The Big Year, he shows us a similar enthusiasm, but in a much more controlled, quieter way.  It is every bit as passionate, but expressed more realistically, at least for those of us who aren’t manic personalities.  Brad behaves the way I do about Star Wars, or Pixar movies. 

It is Brad’s story that is most compelling.  Here’s a guy who’s not a great success by most measures.  He’s thirty-six, divorced, living at home with his parents, and working at a job he despises.  Yet he has this dream of doing a big year.  He doesn’t have the resources so he decides to keep working, and fit in his birding expeditions as he can. Predictably, Brad has a difficult relationship with his father, who can’t understand his son’s apparent lack of ambition in life, and his inexplicable desire to pursue this massively involved and expensive birdwatching quest with its notable absence of any real (external) reward.  Brian Dennehy plays Brad’s father, and he is pitch-perfect in his portrayal of a father who can’t comprehend in the least his son’s decision-making.  That he is disappointed with the way his son is conducting his life is obvious.  He doesn’t go overboard, he doesn’t yell, he’s not constantly excoriating or insulting Brad, but the cool, crusty demeanor belies a father who just can’t understand the man his son has become.  Dennehy is just terrific in this relatively small part.

Their relationship leads to the nicest moment of The Big Year, the one that, for me, makes this movie memorable.  Late in the film, Stu calls Brad to tell him about a rare owl sighting in his area.   Brad’s father answers the phone, and the two talk briefly.  Stu, who is roughly the same age as Brad’s father, talks about Brad in glowing terms, and tells him how great he is at birding and how close he is to breaking the big year record.   Something begins to shift in Brad’s father’s perspective, and when Brad leaves to find the owl, his father goes with him.  They hike out together into the peaceful, snowy forest.  After a time, Brad goes on alone, then fears he has lost his father, and, after a few completely pointless dramatic moments, finds him again.  His father, meanwhile, has spotted the owl, almost right above them, and shows it to Brad.   And in the small, silent time that follows, Brad’s father’s expression reveals that he is now beginning to understand what birding, and the big year, is really all about for Brad.  They are able to share that deeply personal moment of pure joy together. 

And that made me remember what it used to be like, before I became an iconoclast, when I loved things that others didn’t always understand, especially my closest friends, and how crucial it was to me that they understand not that I loved them, but why I loved them, because the why had something to do with me and who I am, and how, in certain special moments, there would sometimes be this dawning recognition, this breakthrough event, when the person who hadn’t been interested before, or didn’t quite get it, would begin to see at last, and how exhilarating and relieving and reassuring it felt all at once to know that my friend saw the same brilliance in this thing that I saw, and which didn’t feel like it was something outside myself at all, but some mysterious extension of my essential self.  For Brad, it was birds.  For me, it was This Is Spinal Tap and The Kinks. 

The movies that can do that, make you remember something long forgotten about yourself, have done something special I think, even if they’re not great movies in and of themselves.  I give credit to The Big Year for creating that moment, and sparking that memory.  I don’t know if it was intentional or not, or if it was meant to be the film’s emotional summit.  But in the end, that doesn’t really matter, does it?  What matters is that it made a connection, which far too many movies try to do, and fail, or worse, don’t even try to begin with. 

And that’s enough to make The Big Year my kind of movie.


  1. I whole heartedly agree! I saw it on free movie channel weekend too. ;)

    1. It's just a nice movie, isn't it? I think we all kind of believe that if it's a nice movie, it's going to be a waste of time. I like to think there's a place for nice, good-natured movies like The Big Year. I guess I'm a dreamer, but it's nice to know I'm not the only one...

  2. Referring to the last line of your response to KLo's comment, for a moment I thought you were breaking in to son - John Lennon's "Imagine" being brought to mind. :)