The Big Year is the sort of vehicle that will cause critics and audiences alike equal difficulty in discerning why and how it ever got made in the first place (which is not necessarily a bad thing). An indie film in all but budget, stars, and well… 20th Century Fox, it’s a slow, meandering “comedy” that isn’t exactly funny, and doesn’t offer much insight when it comes to what it thinks you ought to be getting out of it. At least, not until the very end, when it didn’t need to say anything anyway, and probably shouldn’t have.
Normally, working out how a film came together is neither here nor there, whether looking at something as a critic, or simply as any fan of film, but I suspect a lot of people are going to wonder about this one, and I think in this case it’s worth looking at for more than that moment of curiosity that is sure to hit everyone. Once we get Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson in the film, and allow for guest spots from Jim Parsons, Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, Brian Dennehy, Tim Blake Nelson, Anjelica Huston, and more, you have to know that a good chunk of the film’s roughly $40 million budget is gone. Plus, we at least faked a lot of locations, which costs something.
Add in the fact that the ROI on movies about birding can hardly be expected to be in the “easy money” category no matter who you get to be in it, and you’ll see that wondering about the creation of this film is something that actually does a lot of work.
Jack Black has the lead role as Brad Harris. A decidedly average individual, Brad is 36, divorced, may or may not live with his parents, and has a less than fulfilling job, which naturally involves a cubicle. He has a passion though, and that passion is birding. Despite his limited means, and the fact that he can’t quit his job, Brad has decided to go for his dream, a “big year.” A grand adventure of the birding world, a big year is when you try to see as many different varieties of birds as you can within one calendar year. This is obviously something to tax the budget, and not the sort of thing your parents see as a truly wise move when you’re 36, and seem to have no life.
The current king of the big year is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), who managed 732 back in ’03, and is going after the record again, largely because he’s scared that this may be a good year for someone else to pass him. His new wife reminds him that his effort in ’03 is probably what ended his marriage with his old wife, but he’s on a mission, and being the best in the world at something is hard to ignore, no matter what it is.
Rounding out our trio is Stu Priessler (Martin). Stu has a multi-million dollar company to run, but he’s finally going to retire (again), and he’s going to kick off his retirement with a big year. His right-hand men don’t want to let him go though, and they aren’t going to make it easy. Stu has always wanted to do a big year, but it’s hard to get that kind of time when you start a company from your garage and turn it into something worth more than you ever dreamed… and you have a family.
As our story progresses, we learn that Bostick really is something of a legend in the birding community, but he didn’t exactly make a lot of friends during his ’03 trips across North America. We also find out that if you’re going for a big year, there are certain places you really have to go if you want a shot at a big number, and you have to go there at certain times. Thus, our three birders run into each other with some frequency. Brad and Stu become friends, united in their efforts to outdo Bostick, and generally, hilarity ensues, but not an especially funny sort of hilarity.
We follow the three birders as they not only cover countless miles trekking back and forth across North America, but we also watch their returns to real life, brief as they may be, and the pieces of their individual puzzles come together more in the exploration of what they leave behind (and how hard it is), than in any relating of their truly massive adventure. These home moments are perhaps overly simplistic at times, but they are remarkably real nonetheless, and as Martin’s character serves to reveal, it isn’t so much why, how, and what you’re obsessed with, it’s just a question of where you are… no matter where you are. As the old saying goes, no one on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time in a bog staring at birds.”
The tagline of the film is the somewhat underwhelming, “Everyone is searching for something.” In a trip that covers the peaks of mountains, remote islands, and too many states and locales in Canada to mention, one of these three men only saw birds. The other two had A Big Year. What makes the tagline rather clever is that none of these three men knew what they were looking for, none of them find it by searching for it, and they all (one of them misguidedly) come to the rare realization that finding something doesn’t mean you stop searching for it.
As Brad will explain to us, this is a “competition” that really has no prize. What you get, to quote Pete Aron, is that, “you get to win,” but more importantly for this film, you get to have done it. Considering no one is getting rich here, and none of these people are really desperate for work, it puts a spin on figuring out how this film came together.
Ultimately, the film could have benefited from going over things a few more times. We might have taken a couple more months to run over the script, and had more eyes on things (especially considering the comedic talent available), but it just isn’t that sort of movie. You get the idea that things were a bit rushed, and to be honest, nothing that’s actually funny happens. The mass appeal (and even critical appeal most likely) is somewhere on par with that of birding itself, which is to say that the majority of people will get nothing from it, but a select few will fall in love.
Nevertheless, to borrow a mode of expression from one of our stars, few actors on their deathbeds every said, “I wish I’d have spent more time making movies like Marmaduke.”