The Big Year | Film review
Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson play competing birders in this winning comedy.
“Only Americans could turn birding into a competition,” sneers an ornery ornithologist in The Big Year. Likewise, only Hollywood could turn an interest as deeply specialized as competitive bird watching into fodder for a carpe diem buddy comedy. Yet for all its minor concessions to a feather-indifferent audience, this big-screen take on Mark Obmascik’s best-selling memoir protects the specificity of its featured vocation as diligently as a mother bird protects her nest.
The title refers to a regular challenge among avian enthusiasts, who compete to see who can spot the greatest number of breeds in North America over a single calendar year. Trading couture culture for fowl followers, director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) trains his binoculars on three leading contenders: Kenny (Owen Wilson), the returning champ, out to defend his title; Stu (Steve Martin), an aging corporate bigwig finally setting aside time to chase his dream; and narrator Brad (Jack Black), whose cross-continent migration spurs a new romance with a budding birder (Rashida Jones).
Neither as broad nor as saccharine as it could have been, The Big Year demonstrates an unusual sensitivity to the double-edged sword that is a “calling.” Like 2005’s Fever Pitch, it’s a comedy that explores nerdish devotion as both a uniting and an alienating force. To that end, the leader of the flock is Black, summoning some of his jazzed School of Rock sweetness. Passion, be it for rare birds or the Yardbirds, is a plumage he wears wonderfully.