Review: Watching ‘The Big Year’ is Like Watching Painted Birds Dry

By  · Published on October 14th, 2011

For those of us who are not predisposed to spend hours of our time spying on birds in a forest, birding aficionados can seem like an awfully strange lot. That’s not to suggest that their hobby isn’t understandable. After all, the satisfaction in finding a rare bird seems similar to the sense of accomplishment one feels upon finishing a difficult puzzle, or upon finally locating Waldo.

Still, anyone who’s ever accompanied a birder on his mission knows that once the object of prey is spotted there will be a long, frenzied staring and photographic session, with any slight movement met with enthusiastic “oohs” and “aahs.”

If you’re not of the niche birder community, this is an insufferable experience. So it’s hard to fathom why director David Frankel and screenwriter Howard Franklin imagined anyone would be especially entertained by a movie about it.

Yet, somehow someone though the world needed a movie about birders, so Frankel and Franklin have given us The Big Year, based on a book by Mark Obmascik. Not only that, they’ve rounded up a host of talented actors – principally Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson – and put them in one of the blandest imaginable comedies, a PG-rated flick that’s so nice and so harmless it’s like inhaling pound after pound of flavorless tofu.

The scintillating premise: New York CEO Stu Preissler (Martin), power plant employee Brad Harris (Black) and champion birder Kenny Bostick (Wilson) each individually decide to pursue a “big year,” meaning they’ll spend an entire calendar cycle racing across the country, trying to spot as many new species of birds as possible (YAWN).

Zzzzz, where was I? Oh right: To do so, they’ll blow off fertility-challenged wives, newborn grandchildren and sickly parents. Brad will max out credit cards. Stu will nearly throw away a major corporate merger. Kenny will place some sort of owl on a higher pedestal than the possibility of a child.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first non-documentary to ever connote entertainment with staring at birds. And staring at birds is just about all it offers. Martin, Black, and Wilson are thoroughly neutered, reduced to saying things like “Goddang it” while gently scrambling about to find whatever rare bird is next on their characters’ lists.

The premise could lend itself to a Christopher Guest-style satire, but Frankel plays things painstakingly straight. Everything is so family-friendly and on-the-level that the competition is based entirely on the honor system and the tiniest interpersonal deception is met with a virtually instantaneous sincere confession.

There’s no conflict to be found in The Big Year and nothing more than the sporadic hint of a visual style (mostly manifest during the scenes on the Alaskan island of Attu). The movie never bothers to question what creates an obsession destructive enough that a man with a wife might spend Christmas Eve dining alone in a Chinese restaurant so he can see a spotted owl, or whatever.

It also forgets the fundamental fact that for most of the general population the only thing more boring than birding itself is watching other people do it.

The Upside: There are a lot of fine actors in the cast: Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Rosamund Pike, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Tim Blake Nelson, Anthony Anderson and Joel McHale etc.

The Downside: It’s one of the most painstakingly dull movies I’ve seen in a long time.

On the Side: Director David Frankel did The Devil Wears Prada, so he understands the benefits of characters, humor and narrative perspective. Hopefully next time he bothers to include them.