By MARK TURNER
It's always a pleasure to find a movie that you thought would be terrible and be proven wrong. After the disaster that was GULLIVER'S TRAVELS I was certain that THE BIG YEAR starring Jack Black would be another travesty of film with him mugging for the camera the same way he always does. Instead I found a delightful film that I know I could watch again and enjoy.
Black stars as Brad Harris, a birder (bird-viewing enthusiast) with an uncanny ability to know a bird by the song it sings. The main event for bird viewers is known as a Big Year, a year-long event where they try to see as many species of birds as they can. When this 36-year-old gets the news his ex-wife is remarrying he decides this is the year to take time off from work to fulfill his lifelong wish to do a Big Year.
Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) has decided to retire for the second time from the multinational corporation of which he is CEO. While the executives in charge want him to stay on, he, too, has decided that this is the best opportunity he will have to do his own Big Year. With his wife's blessings, he heads out to start watching.
Which leaves our third main character, Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson). Kenny holds the record for the highest number of birds seen, over 800. His is the record to beat and one that he holds dear. So much so that he puts his record above everything else in his life including his wife (Rosamund Pike) and her desire to have children.
When word gets out the to bird crowd about a major even bringing thousands of species to one location, they all head to begin their counts. Bumping into one another on a boat, Brad and Stu strike up a friendship based on their love of birds neither one admitting to doing a Big Year. As the sightings escalate and they run into one another more often, they get closer and finally Brad admits what he is doing. But Stu holds back.
But Kenny recognizes what's happening and tries to play the two friends off of one another slowing them down in their quest at the same time. This enables him to continue on and attempt to set a new world record. But fences are mended and the friends continue to try and beat the already established record.
Along the way Brad faces two more challenges. One is his father (Brian Dennehy) a blue collar man who can't understand his son's quest. He considers him to be a failure rather than a man who has a chance to take the crown from Kenny. Brad also finds himself falling in love with another birder, a young woman who can make bird calls better than anyone he meets. Unfortunately he discovers she has a boyfriend. Along with the birding itself, these two stumbling blocks offer plot devices that fit nicely into the whole story going on.
Each of these three men comes from various financial backgrounds and families, each has their strengths and weaknesses and each has a goal in mind when it comes to their Big Year. But as the story unfolds we not only have the chance to witness some breath taking scenery but to get a fully flushed out story involving all three characters.
My biggest fear as I began this film was the actors. Black, Martin and Wilson have all had films in the past where a director's complete lack of control resulted in an actor taking over and ruining the production, trying to use their usual shtick thinking it was funny when in truth it had become boring. None of that exists here. Both Black and Martin give exceptional performances and flush out their characters to the fullest without resorting to the old standby laugh getters. Instead we have characters that we care about and who we hope will remain friends. Wilson's character is the saddest of the three without his own being aware of it. One hopes he will one day find the joy the other two achieve by the end of the film.
Don't let the simple concept of this film fool you. It offers so much more than one would think a movie about watching birds could. It also offers Black a chance at redemption in my book, giving him the chance to actually act rather than play the buffoon. Let's just hope he continues to do so.
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