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'The Big Year' not for the birds

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Comedy driven by performance, plumage

Of all the hobbies that one might choose to make a film about, bird-watching would seem to be fairly low on the list. There would appear to be nothing truly dynamic inherent to quiet guys quietly picking their way through the woods and watching birds - quietly.

However, 'The Big Year' would beg to differ.

It's the story of three men who have decided to attempt what is known in birding circles as a 'big year.' The gist is that you try to see and catalog as many different species of birds (in North America) as you can in one calendar year. The person who puts up the biggest number is acknowledged as the world's best birder.

You've got Brad Harris (Jack Black, 'Gulliver's Travels'), a computer programmer who hates his job and lives with his parents. Brad's kind of adrift and thinks winning the Big Year might be his chance to leave his mark. Then there's Stu Preissler (Steve Martin, 'It's Complicated'), a millionaire industrialist who has been consumed by his job for years. The Big Year has been a dream of his since childhood, and now that he's retired, he can take his shot. And finally, there's Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson, 'Midnight in Paris'), a New Jersey contractor who happens to be hold the current record for most birds in a big year. He's out there to protect his record and his legacy.

Each of these three men crosses paths over and over again as they travel within the small, fanatical world of competitive bird-watching. They go back and forth across the continent, chasing after reports and rumors of sightings of rare species. Due to a number of coinciding weather events, migrations are affected and this year offers the potential for a record-breaking big year.

As the months pass, the pressure of the search grows and each man deals with the stress in different ways. Each man finds himself questioning both his bird-watching quest and his life in general. Some handle it better than others. In the end, each of them is changed by their big year - some for better, some for worse.

The performances are central to the relative success of this film. Jack Black is remarkably subdued as Brad; it might be the least cartoony I've ever seen him. Martin brings a sweet, quiet dignity to Stu - his best scenes are the ones he has with his wife and family. And Wilson's Bostick is all naked ambition, relentlessly defending his record at the expense of everything else.

The supporting cast is wonderful as well. Brian Dennehy ('The Next Three Days') and Dianne Wiest ('Rabbit Hole') are great as Brad's parents. Rosamund Pike ('Surrogates') and JoBeth Williams (TV's 'Private Practice') put up nicely different performances as Stu's and Kenny's wives, respectively.

This film is not for everyone. The events unfold at an extremely leisurely pace. The subject matter feels a bit dry. Not a lot actually happens. Still, watching the ways these three very different people address the obsession that they share is undeniably fascinating. Despite my utter lack of interest in the idea of bird-watching, I was drawn in. I was invested in these men and their relationships. And really, that's a pretty significant accomplishment for any movie.

'The Big Year' has its flaws. Still, the three actors at the heart of the film find a way to transcend the seeming mundaneness of bird-watching and turn it into something resembling a noble pursuit. These characterizations do a lot to overcome the bordering-on-glacial pacing and the relative lack of action. It's a sweet, gentle film - a welcome counterpoint to the crudity and violence of many of today's cinematic offerings.

4Popcorn

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 October 2011 13:31

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