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Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Movie-loving Birder's Review: The Big Year

Truthfully, I haven’t been birding all that long – I can still count the number of years on one hand. But back before there were birds, I loved movies. I loved watching them on the big screen in an empty theater, I loved quoting my favorite lines from Pulp Fiction or Spaceballs. Heck, I even loved learning about how movies were made, from script to shooting to post production. So when I heard that a movie about birding was coming out, combining my two favorite pastimes, I could hardly contain my excitement. I even read the book ahead of time in preparation. And then, last night, I watched it.

The Big Year chronicles a year in the life of three extreme birders – Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. Because let’s be real here, in this movie these guys aren’t portraying characters, they’re just portraying themselves with binoculars. The film opens with Jack Black narrating his own story, anchoring him as the main character, which is probably the best move you could make. He’s the only one of the trio that’s not ridiculously wealthy, and his struggles with bird and work probably resonate with 90% of the birding community. So far, so good.

The movie starts going downhill once everybody starts birding. Much like an actual Big Year, the characters seem to be more focused with their numbers than actually seeing and experiencing the birds. Owen Wilson exemplifies this when he hops over a fence to see a Xantus’s Hummingbird for a grand total of maybe ten seconds before returning to his car. But perhaps its not the characters’ faults. This movie clearly wasn’t written by a birder, or perhaps a person who even enjoys nature. How else would you explain Jack Black and Jim Parsons sitting on a rock in the middle of Joshua Tree while Parsons blogs on his Macbook?

To get to the point, here’s really what I disliked about the movie: for the first half (doubly so in expository dialogue), every character speaks in poorly formed clichés, and the dialogue is completely mundane and not captivating in the slightest. Once they actually start birding, the movie fails to show people many actual birds, save for like two tanagers and an Indigo Bunting. Everything else is a CGI flyover or merely mentioned in the dialogue, and the film clearly ignores the first rule of screen-writing: “Don’t tell me; show me.” How are non-birders supposed to get how awesome Attu is if the only real bird they’re shown is a domestic tufted Mallard? Jack Black finding Spectacled Eiders and a Laysan Albatross in the middle of a field doesn’t quite have the same impact when they’re just words hovering on the screen.

Oh, and when they give you money to spend on a music budget, the least you could do is not license a damn Coldplay song. I mean, have a sense of decency.

At the same time, there are many enjoyable parts to the movie. I didn’t really mind the CGI birds (even the gulls in that ridiculous scene on Attu). I quite liked the subtle piano melody of The Beatles’s “Blackbird” playing in the background of one scene, and it was cool to see Asheville represented in the movie (even though it doesn’t look like any part of Asheville I’ve ever been to). Oh, and that British birder commenting on how Americans turned birding uncivilized by relegating it to sport, followed by Owen Wilson flipping him the, well, bird. Finally, Steve Martin doing his trademark “Wild and Crazy Guy” dance. Awesome.

Acting-wise, most of the performances were sub-par. As I mentioned before, the main three guys just play themselves, and most of the B-cast gives hackneyed one-liners. The worst offenders are Steve Martin’s “yes-men” played by Joel McHale and Kevin Pollack (sweet paychecks, dudes!). I think I cringed every time words came out of their mouths. However, the most disappointing acting had to’ve come from Rashida Jones, an actress I quite like from Parks and Recreation and the recent Our Idiot Brother. But between the bad bird calls (ravens aren’t that difficult to imitate) and the cobbled-together love story, I really couldn’t stand any scene she was a part of.

The great acting award has to go to Brian Dennehy. That man stole every minute he was on screen, and the only parts of the movie that felt remotely real and human were the interactions between him and Jack Black as father and son. I don’t think anybody can deny that the two of them finding a Great Gray Owl together represented the high point of the movie. From his ire at Jack Black’s big year in the beginning to rooting for him in the end, Dennehy had the most character development and was by far the most interesting part of the movie. Finally, something I could really enjoy.

But the parts I enjoy most about movies are the little cameos, especially of obscure or faded pop culture icons. Kevin Pollack could have easily fit into this category (remember how awesome The Usual Suspects was?), but there are even better ones to be had. For example, remember that one guy grilling Owen Wilson about his big year on Attu? That’s his brother. No, his other brother, Andrew Wilson, who’s seen recent roles in Whip It and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. And the guy driving the helicopter while they look for snowcocks? Corbin Bernsen, star of LA Law and more recently the USA program Psych. Finally, and probably my favorite – the one guy in the board room, whose company Steve Martin is trying to buy. That’s Steve Weber, whose last famous role was none other than the early ‘90s TV show Wings. Yeah, it’s not been a great decade for him.

I could never unfairly criticize a movie without giving a valid reason. In this case, I feel The Big Year could have been far more compelling, and I’ll tell you how to do it. For one, if you’re going to depart from the source material any, you might as well depart from it completely. Don’t try and stick in little moments from the book, or your pacing is going to be off, and having the three guys with rather unrelated storylines doesn't help either. I’d suggest having Jack Black and Steve Martin realize that Owen Wilson is a force to be reckoned with early on in the movie, and team up quickly. That way, this becomes more of a Planes, Trains and Automobiles but with birds, a great buddy road-trip movie. Everybody likes those, and there’s a lot of room for character development while you're driving in a car. Finally, knock out all that family stuff, because it doesn't end up being all that important to the characters and it'll kill your rhythm. But keep all the parts with Brian Dennehy in them, because he's awesome. Literally the best part of the movie.

In the end, The Big Year accurately represents its source material. Unfortunately, said source material is all about the mechanical counting of birds, and lacks the amazing avian experiences that represent what we’ve all come to love about the hobby. As a movie, it’s merely forgettable. As a birding movie, meant to show the world what we do and why we do it – it’s a disappointment.


  1. The first time I saw the movie, I hated it. The second time, I liked it. The disappointment comes from expectation, really. Yes, the story is hackneyed and cliche', but the actors managed to bring some humanity to a truly awful script. I say, keep the actors, but give the story more soul. One part Easy Rider, one part Motorcycle Diaries, a dash of Into the Wild, and more than a tablespoon of David Attenborough, and you have a classic. Instead, it's a mildly enjoyable DVD that can be pulled out every three years to look for continuity errors. (Enjoyed your critique, by the way). Mark K

  2. I totally agree, this needed to be far more travel-centric. If they ever make Kingbird Highway into a movie, it should star Emile Hirsch ala Into The Wild!