Birds of a feather

The Big Year

Nope, not a naked woman—and they’d be upset if it was.

Nope, not a naked woman—and they’d be upset if it was.

Rated 5.0

The Big Year is one of the most pleasant surprises of this little year, and it shows that if you have the right combination of brains and talent, you can make a fascinating movie about just about anything.

Take birdwatching, for example—“birding,” as birdwatchers (“birders”) prefer to call it. That’s the subject of The Big Year, and it’s a secret well-kept by the movie’s preview trailer, which tells us only that the stars are Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson, and they’re on a cross-country trip. Or race. Or something. Faint echoes (and not always pleasant ones) of Planes, Trains & Automobiles or Due Date swam in the back of my head watching The Big Year’s trailer. There was no hint that the cross-country travel in this new movie rises from a not-always-friendly competition to be the person who spots the largest number of birds in North America during a single year.

Were the producers afraid that the subject might keep audiences away? Not to worry; The Big Year handles the unique obsessions of birders with such sympathetic and expansive good humor that even a confirmed homebody who wouldn’t know a plover from a pullover can understand and sympathize with it.

The movie opens with an impish inscription that mixes equal parts boast and confession: “This is a true story. Only the facts have been changed.” Funny as that sounds, it’s quite true. Howard Franklin’s screenplay adapts Mark Obmascik’s book of the same name, subtitled A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession. Obmascik chronicled the informal, honor-system birding race of 1998, which resulted in a record number of sightings that will probably never be broken. The book followed the year’s three top contenders: a New Jersey contractor, a semi-retired corporate executive from Colorado and a Maryland software engineer.

In the movie, the occupations remain, but the names (and no doubt much of their back stories) have been changed. The contractor is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the acknowledged North American birding champ, out to break his own record of 732 species in one year. The exec is Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), who hopes his latest effort to retire will finally stick so he can at last realize his dream of “working on a big year.” The software engineer is Brad Harris (Jack Black). Like Stu, he regards Kenny with equal parts awe and envy, plus a dash of respectful resentment and hopes to be the one to finally out-bird him this year.

Franklin, director David Frankel and the three stars manage to get under the skins of these men and their unusual obsession, and in the process the movie gets under ours. Brad struggles to explain his love of birding to his father (Brian Dennehy), whose attitude is almost a surrogate for the audience: dismissive, even disdainful, until unexpectedly, the old man finally begins to get it. Stu’s wife (JoBeth Williams) is supportive and understanding, but his former corporate underlings (Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale) won’t leave him to follow his bliss; they can’t run the company without him, yet they think he’s being inconsiderate. Kenny’s drive to outdo himself and his inability to rest on his laurels put strains on his marriage, where his wife (Rosamund Pike) has a biological-clock obsession of her own that, like Kenny’s, won’t wait.

There are no belly laughs in The Big Year; it’s not that kind of comedy, and Franklin and Frankel don’t resort to slapstick or fun-poking. The cast is well-balanced; Franklin gives them strong characters and good lines, while Frankel orchestrates them into a smooth ensemble (one shudders to think what Adam Sandler or Zach Galifianakis, say, might have done if they’d been allowed to horn in). Black, Martin and Wilson are all at their very best. Martin hasn’t been this good since Shopgirl, and as for Jack Black—well, Gulliver’s Travels is entirely forgiven. Dianne Wiest, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston and Tim Blake Nelson, among others, are also along, giving the movie an unusually deep bench.

The Big Year may deal with birding, but it’s really about comradeship and sharing a common dream. And we can all fly with that.