The Big Year
January 26, 2012

You may not have heard of The Big Year, which came and went quickly in theaters last fall. Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black star as birdwatchers who find a special event changes their lives in more ways than one in this DVD out Tuesday, January 31.

A “big year” is a competition to see the greatest number of birds in North America in a calendar year. It’s a particular twist on the hobby that, taken to this extreme, seems to involve a lot of travel to uncomfortable but lovely locations. (I found this IMDB board post intriguing for providing more details while making an argument against.)

Wilson is a well-known birdwatcher married to Rosamund Pike (Surrogates), who feels abandoned by his quest. Black is a divorced computer programmer, lonely and lost. Martin is a new retiree and soon-to-be grandfather giving up his CEO career to follow the birds.

The supporting cast is strong, although few are given much to do; the focus is firmly on the three leads. JoBeth Williams plays Martin’s wife, with Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale as co-workers. Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy are Black’s parents. Other birders are played by Jim Parsons and Rashida Jones, while it’s very different to see Anjelica Huston as a boat captain. The movie is narrated by John Cleese throughout, treating the characters as though they were observed wildlife.

(Dennehy has one of my favorite lines, when he tries to understand his son’s hobby. A friend has called with the location of a specific species in a nearby national forest, and Dennehy reports they’ll be heading out together to see “some kind of owl out in the woods”.)

Brian Dennehy and Jack Black in The Big Year

Brian Dennehy and Jack Black

Perhaps because they’re based on real people (the movie is based on a non-fiction book), the characters are nicely well-rounded (with the exception of Wilson’s super-competitive obsessive, although that’s certainly realistic). I particularly liked Martin’s ex-company head. He keeps getting dragged back into the business not because he can’t give it up, as Hollywood would have it, but because those who used to work for him aren’t used to proceeding without his advice and guidance. It’s a comforting, mature portrayal.

Those adjectives describe the movie as well. This gentle film builds based on character and locations. Some fans recommend it for its lack of strong language and nudity. There are no belly laughs, instead featuring the heart-warming humor of recognizing a particular personality or hearing a well-turned retort. It also has an excellent soundtrack. And the credits, which show images of all the different kinds of birds, are both educational and overwhelming.

Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin in The Big Year

Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin in The Big Year

There were no extras on the DVD screener I received (which seems to reflect the actual DVD), only the choice between the hour-and-forty-minute theatrical version or the extended version, with three more minutes of footage. The Blu-ray edition comes with DVD and digital copy, plus deleted scenes, a “Big Migration” featurette, and a gag reel.

This movie is an excellent option for a birdwatcher, since it’s rare to see such an extended treatment of the hobby on film. It’s also a good choice to watch with parents, since there’s little to embarrass anyone, and older viewers will appreciate its quiet grace. (The studio provided a review copy.)

2 Responses  
Ed Sizemore writes:  

Given the cast, I was shocked how fast this flew through theaters. I blinked and missed my chance to see it.

Johanna writes:  

Yeah, it may be that it was different enough that marketing didn’t know what to do with it, or the audience for it isn’t the one that goes out to movie theaters. I think there’s clearly a market for it, but it’s very much not the typical one.


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