The Big Year

By Geoff Ratliff

I’ll fully admit that I was more than a little skeptical about this film the first time I saw the trailer. I love Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black individually, but the idea of seeing the three of them together in a film about bird watching had catastrophe written all over it. After seeing the trailer again and giving it some more thought, I decided that my worries were probably more attributable to the initial shock of the subject matter rather than any real concern about the chemistry of the trio. Although all have deep comedic roots, each has delivered admirable performances in dramatic roles, demonstrating that they can adapt their humor to fit several formats. Plus my wife was enthusiastic about seeing it – always a good sign – so we decided to make a date night out of it.

The Big Year, a film based on a quest embarked on by actual, serious bird watchers, follows the story of Stu (Martin), Brad (Black), and Kenny (Wilson), who all decide to take on this year-long challenge for very different reasons. Stu is the Founder and CEO of a successful, New York-based company, struggling to finally retire to a less complicated life with his wife. Brad is a 36 year-old divorcee, stuck in a dead-end job, and struggling to gain the respect of his very old school father, played by Brian Dennehy. The Big Year is Brad’s attempt to validate his life both to himself and to his dad. Kenny (Wilson) is the reigning Big Year champion, and his quest to defend his title is rooted in his belief that every other birder is out to take what he worked so hard to earn. Kenny struggles with finding balance in his life as he tries to build his third (at least) marriage while defending his title. Their stories intertwine when Stu and Brad strike up a  friendship early on in their quest, while Kenny sees them as two of the most viable threats to trumping his own record.

Like most films with quirky subject matters, the movie isn’t really about birding at all; it’s about three men of a certain age trying to figure out what’s important to them at various crossroads in their respective lives. The movie is clearly directed at the “It’s Complicated” demographic – the type of crowd that is undoubtedly dealing with some of the same issues addressed in the film in their own lives – but lacks some of that movie’s hilarious peaks.

This is not to say that the film isn’t very enjoyable. Martin, Black, and Wilson exhibit great chemistry, and the supporting cast of characters such as Stu’s top executives (Joel McHale and Kevin Pollack), or Rashida Jones as Black’s love interest, are solid if not underutilized. I can’t point out any obvious missteps in the film, but I also can’t recall any moments that made me double over in laughter either. Instead of having my greatest fear realized – that the combo might stumble over itself in an attempt to be too funny – I actually walked away with a completely contradictory feeling that the comedic talents of these three heavy weights in the industry weren’t quite exploited enough.

Follow Geoff on Twitter @snglemarriedguy

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