The Big Year is about a bird-watching competition not that you’d know it from the advertising. I’ve seen half a dozen TV spots and trailers, and somehow, the marketing team behind the film has managed to avoid revealing the most crucial piece of information about the movie. From the adverts, I’d have no idea what The Big Year was about; I’d only know that Jack Black, Steve Martin 2.0, and Owen Wilson were in it, and typically, that’s enough to steer most of us away.
But the reality is, they’re the best part about The Big Year. Steve Martin avoids pratfalls and crinkles his eyes endearingly, as he does in the best scenes of his terrible family movies; Jack Black is uncharacteristically low key and likable; and Owen Wilson is well-suited to the role of sympathetic asshole. It’s not a broad comedy, it’s neither silly nor dumb; and it never reaches for cheap laughs. In fact, it never reaches for laughs at all.
Indeed, the problem with The Big Year is the exact problem the marketing attempted to work around: It’s a movie about a bird-watching competition. It is not secondary to the plot; bird watching is not used as a backdrop to tell a larger story. It’s simply a movie about a bird-watching competition, about three men who race around for a year to identify as many species of birds as possible in North America. The winner gets … bragging rights. There is a nod toward self-discovery, but really, even that’s incidental to the hundreds of species of birds that are on display.
Steve Martin plays Stew, the CEO of a large nondescript company that he retires from in order to take on his Big Year; Jack Black plays Brad, an aimless guy who lives with his parents and decides to do a Big Year to give his life some meaning and purpose; and Owen Wilson is Kenny, the Big Year record holder who puts his family-life on hold in order to maintain that record. The three of them go to distant places to find birds; they talk about birds when they’re together; and there’s a very friendly and harmless competitive rivalry between the them.
The truth is, it’s not a bad movie, but neither is it a good one. It’s a movie for bird watchers and the elderly (the screening I attended was packed with senior citizens; I can only assume the National Audubon Society organized an outing). It’s not a movie to get worked up over in either direction: It’s okay; there’s not a lot of drama; the stakes are very low; and the conflict is superficial. But, it passes the time; the scenery is nice; the characters are likable; and bird watchers will undoubtedly appreciate it (there were occasional cheers from the attendees in my screening when a particular bird was spotted).
In short, it’s a lot like a doddering grandfather: Sweet, amiable, and kind of boring. But I have absolutely no malice against it. If you’re into birds, I’d recommend it. If not, it’s probably not going to float your banana stand.