'The Big Year" is a good-hearted, mildly entertaining movie that stands as an object lesson in the pitfalls of adapting quirky non-fiction for the screen.
The movie, like the Mark Obmascik book on which it's based, focuses on three competitors in a crazy, year-long race among dedicated birders — don't say bird-watchers — to catalog the most North American species. Brad Harris (Jack Black), a hard-luck, divorced Gen-Xer who lives with his parents, is going deep into hock to finance his Big Year. The villain of the piece is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the Big Year record-holder, and a scheming, overconfident competitor whose interest in birding stems from the fact that he happens to be very good at it. Finally, corporate titan Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) is about to become a grandfather and is retiring from the business he founded to pursue the Big Year.
The film trudges through the year-long quest for the title of top birder, starting over the Christmas holidays and ramping up as the three fan out across the country — crossing paths here and there — to pad out their lists. The quest takes the trio to some unusual locales: They wrinkle their noses at the putrefaction of a landfill in Brownville, Texas, to peep at the Tamaulipas crow; they brave a harrowing propeller plane flight over the Bering Sea to witness a gathering of rare birds on the tiny, isolated Aleutian island of Attu.
Some of the footage is spectacular. But the film's love affair with birding is only skin deep.
Where a book can digress, meander and drill deep into details, personalities, motivations and back stories, "The Big Year" plods inexorably forward toward the resolution of the contest. For instance, the unlikely friendship between Stu and Brad should be sweet and charming, but their bond just serves as a device to pit them against the hated Bostick. There are similar missed opportunities throughout "The Big Year." It brings to mind the frustration that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman must have experienced trying to translate "The Orchid Thief" to the screen. Mr. Kaufman came up with an outlandish but entertaining meta-narrative about a screenwriter in search of a way to write about orchids for the screen that became "Adaptation." A less literal approach might have helped the makers of "The Big Year" out of the same trap.
"The Big Year" isn't really about the chase for the record, it's about what the participants, especially Brad, learn along the way. The movie would have benefited from a deeper dive into passions that underlie the love of birds and the drive to compete. This is not to say it's a bad movie, but considering the talents involved and the strength of the source material, it could have been something special.
TITLE: "The Big Year"
CREDITS: Directed by David Frankel. Screenplay by Howard Franklin based on the book by Mark Obmascik
RATING: PG for occasional swearing
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS