Birds are sublime creatures. THE BIG YEAR, a film about the birders who rabidly pursue a sight or sound of them, is not. Based on the book of the same name by Mark Obmascik, it is a flat pastiche of painfully clichéd moments strung together around the theme of three guys competing for the honor of having seen the most birds in one year. Working with an unfocused script (is it a comedy? is it a drama?), it takes little time for the flick to fall in on itself and become entirely moribund. Alas, it takes far longer for the final credits to roll and with them a montage of all the birds seen by the guy who saw the most birds.
The three guys are Luke Wilson as the reigning champ, a boorish man with Kodachrome sartorial tastes; Steve Martin as the self-made business mogul finally taking time to live his birding dreams; and Jack Black as the office drone ready to wreak havoc with his credit rating in order to be the best at something. The question that comes most readily to mind is why the powers that be went to the trouble of hiring three actors with vivid on-screen personas and then did everything in their power to render them non-entities. Its more than the dull writing or the pedestrian directing. Its as though the real goal of the exercise was to wring every possible milligram of personality out of them and in this, the film succeeds brilliantly. When Martin breaks character for a brief pantomime that evokes his wild-and-crazy-guy character from the 1970s, it makes one wonder how he snuck it past, and to be grateful that he did.
While the sequences of the guys out in the wild searching out another bird to add to their list has the splendor of nature working for them, once the action returns to the guys an irksome type of boredom sets in with a vengeance. The rich guys wife is dully supportive, the current champs wife isnt, and Blacks character makes slow progress wooing a fellow birder (Rashida Jones) with a gift for bird calls. The pacing is like waiting for a hummingbird egg to hatch but without the payoff at the end (check it out at http://www.ustream.tv/hummingbirdnestcam
). There is no real character development, and plot progression relies all too heavily on the captions listing how far into the year the film has progressed, and how many birds each guy has seen. Not scintillating, but at least it serves as a guide to how long the viewer has endured sitting through it, and a rough gauge of how much longer it will last.
Watching a live nature camera of two barn owl vigorously allopreening is more exciting than anything to be found here, even if said owls notched it down to languid allopreening, even if it were only one barn owl and it was taking a nap (check it out at
http://melandsydney.blogspot.com/ ). The one exception, marginal as it is, would be the brief shot of bald eagles engaging in mid-air courtship, and even that is ruined by an obvious joke.
Many fine actors including Anjelica Huston, Brian Dennehy, Diane Wiest, and Tim Blake Nelson, have lent their talents in vain to THE BIG YEAR. They, too, are done in by the rank blandness against which they cannot prevail. But instead of dwelling on this, there is a better way to understand why people devote their lives to watching birds, and no better place to start than checking in with an Spotted Eagle Owl raising its young on a balcony in South Africa