Tim Blake Nelson
THE BIG YEAR
Loosely based on the real experiences of three birders, The Big Year is a comedy from 2011 starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson in which their characters compete to beat the Big Year record by trying to see and identify as many species of birds as possible in a single year.
Despite boasting an excellent cast of comedians including the likes of Rashida Jones and Jim Parsons, The Big Year was a big box-office bomb earning only about $7M on a $41M budget which may account for the fact that it has mostly been forgotten. Of course, the bird-watching theme was always going to be a hard sell, especially seeing as this movie didn't present itself as a Zoolander-style farce. The Big Year follows three people who put an entire year aside to try and beat the record of most species of birds seen in a year. A record set by Kenny (Owen Wilson) who also decides to participate in order to try and make sure that he keeps his record intact. Steve Martin plays Stu, a wealthy CEO ready to retire whose dream it always was to do a Big Year, while Jack Black is Brad, a computer programmer who lives with his parents and who puts everything he has money-wise into this project, much to his father's disapproval. Stu and Brad become friends along the way before hitting a few speed bumps, while Kenny attempts to mislead his competitors and power through despite experiencing issues in his own relationship.
There is definitely a goofy comedy in there somewhere and you do get brief flashes of this when the cast throws in some physical comedy, or a snappy line, but The Big Year strives to tell a heartfelt story with a positive message which is both commendable and, tragically, its biggest misplay. With subject matter this niche and ripe for comedy one can easily imagine a hilarious goofball spoof about birders taking a competition like this way too seriously like in Rat Race or Dodgeball so turning this potential laugh riot into an earnest "coming of middle age" story with rom-com elements was always going to clash with expectations. And while, yes, the film's tone does feel a little unclear for the first half of the film, The Big Year does settle into a genuinely sweet and thoughtful little story about living your passions and making choices in life. The excellent main and supporting cast handles both the funny parts and the more emotional moments very well, the story is engaging and moves at a brisk pace so this a competent movie with tons of charm and an overall good vibe.
And yet, as much as you want to love The Big Year, it's never quite funny or heartbreaking enough to really sell itself completely. This is a cute movie with a thoroughly likeable cast, a lot of heart and a nice message so it's certainly deserving of more attention than it initially received, just don't expect it to blow you away.