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DVD Review: The Big Year

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Due to be released on DVD on January 31, The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black as three extremely avid birders (don’t call them birdwatchers) is an amusing and laid-back look at what most of us most likely never realized is a competitive sport.

Kenny Bostick (Wilson), holds the title of best birder, as he sighted over 700 birds last year, in his “big year.” The movie, which opens with the comic disclaimer, “This is a true story, only the facts have been changed,” is based on the bookThe Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik. It describes a big year, the competition each year among birders to spot the most species of birds in North America. For Bostick, birding is more than just a sport, it’s a calling. His marriage to Jessica (Rosamund Pike) is suffering because of his “drop everything at the last minute” trips to tick another rare species off his list.

[L-R: Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson]

Bostick is a birding superstar, and he likes it. He intends to maintain his title as reigning champion by doing another big year, but is nervous at the competition he suspects is being posed by wealthy executive Stu Preissler (Martin) and power plant worker Brad Harris (Black), who is using all of his savings in order to pursue his birding dream. Stu has his family’s support, but is hounded by his colleagues (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak), who can’t believe he is retiring from a successful company that he founded to go watch birds. Brad’s mother (Dianne Wiest) is thrilled at his planned adventure and will act as his travel agent for his big year, but his father (Brian Dennehy) is unimpressed and unconvinced. He thinks Brad is wasting his time.

The three men and all of their fellow birders are in this race for the glory. The person who sights the most birds in a calendar year is named the winner in Birder magazine, but there are no monetary prizes. No big-name endorsements for binoculars or anything of that sort. They are in it for the love of it. That relaxed vibe that permeates the sport and The Big Year worked against the film when it was originally released in theaters, as audiences seemed to expect something gut-busting from the comic trio. But The Big Year isn’t that kind of movie. It’s gentle comedy, but it does have its rewards.

The Big Year is at its best when Kenny, Stu, and Brad crisscross the United States (multiple times) in search of the various migrating species. As they get a glimpse of a rare hummingbird, woodpecker, or snowy owl, we get as caught up in their excitement. As the competition gets fiercer, a running tally of each man’s list lets the viewer know where they stand in the race to surpass 700 species. Birders going for a big year are making a serious commitment. They must be prepared to take a plane, train, or automobile — even a boat, bicycle, or helicopter — to see a bird on a remote Aleutian island or in a snowy Virginia forest. It’s also fun to watch all of these birders take part in an activity that gets them get out in the open air, seeing their country.

Directed by David Frankel (Marley and Me, The Devil Wears Prada, Miami Rhapsody), The Big Year is also about the competitive nature of men, in particular three guys who each have their reasons for wanting to be named the best birder. Besides the number of birds they each are spotting, on-screen graphics highlight bird species and the locations.

Wilson probably has the most fun with his role as Kenny, the almost-villain of the piece. Stu and Brad are always trying to catch up to him, but they mostly stand in awe of his determination and obsession. Kenny is also the nattiest dresser, the one with the most exotic plumage, outfitted in bright outdoor gear.

[Owen Wilson as Kenny Bostick]

The Big Year features quite an impressive supporting cast. Rashida Jones plays Ellie, a birder who befriends Brad and has a way with bird calls. Angelica Huston is a lot of fun as Annie Auklet, a guide who considers Kenny her natural enemy. Tim Blake Nelson is Phil, Kenny’s #1 fan. JoBeth Williams plays Stu’s supportive wife. Jim Parsons, Steven Weber, and Corbin Benson also appear in amusing cameos.

DVD extras include scene selection and theatrical and extended editions of the film. The extended edition includes a running narration by John Cleese, comparing the three protagonists to the species of birds they are trying to spot. It is humorous at first, but quickly becomes ponderous. The theatrical version, with Black as narrator, is much better, as his character only offers the occasional observation, as opposed to Cleese’s more constant stream. 

The Big Year may make you look up at the sky more often. You never know what you might see if you take the time to look.

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