The Big Year


(This 1075th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 30, 2011.)


Reviews of the film The Big Year are in and nationally it did not fare well. A number of reviewers hated it, this newspaper assigning it one star with an accompanying vitriolic review that focuses on the film credits and its lack of belly laughs. (Meanwhile three stars were assigned to a film about 8-foot robots.) The reviewer even walked out before it was finished. Overall it did only slightly better, averaging only middling ratings, a few positive, many negative.


I was out of town when the film opened and returned to find my mailbox filled with complaints about that Buffalo News review. One of the mildest read: "I am wondering if you saw the really nasty Jeff Simon review of the new film The Big Year. I think someone like you needs to see the movie and answer his attack. There have been other reviews (USA Today, Oct 14, 2011) that have been favorable. I have been to see the film and I did enjoy it. I do not understand why Simon was so against it."


I hadn't been in a movie theater for several years, but after reading the Simon review I took those messages as an assignment and located the film locally. I plunked down my $7.50 and joined just four others in the theater, I presume non-review readers, to watch it.


An hour and a half later I left the theater with a very different impression from those who disliked this film. I felt that I had received full value from my ticket. It was clear from the details in his review that Simon and I had seen the same movie, but beyond that our reactions were very different.


The film is about three birders who seek the North American record for the number of species seen in one year. As those familiar with this kind of listing know, this involves dashing around the continent from Key West to Attu and even far out to sea on small yachts off the California and New England coasts. To give some sense of the number of species involved, my life list is just short of 450; these birders compete at over 700 in one year. So much for my puny achievement.


Okay, that's the technical stuff and indeed, there is much racing about in cars, trains and airplanes to find those birds. But this is a movie whose real focus is on obsession and friendship. The birds simply provide a base from which to explore those ideas.


Bird watchers are far from the only obsessed people in this modern world. Substitute golf, shopping, televised sports, work, housekeeping or politics and you can find obsessed people, but birding allows this kind of compulsive behavior to be nicely encapsulated into a single year.


During The Big Year a marriage disintegrates and a betrothal is undone but another marriage is further solidified, a new relationship begun, and two of the competitors and a father and son work their way through their differences. These are each well portrayed in this low-key movie.


Jack Black plays the central character in the film. His is the Kenn Kaufman role, the poor guy competing against others who can afford the major expenses involved. Steve Martin plays against type as he did in Planes, Trains and Automobiles as one of those wealthy opponents. And Owen Wilson plays the villain of the piece, another rich migrant for whom I finally felt empathy.


There is indeed one point in the film when others feel that Wilson's character is cheating, recording birds he has not really seen or heard. But in an easily-missed episode he shows his opponents that this is not one of his faults.


Three quick notes all relating to local birding: Buffalo gets a brief mention as a locale for snowy owls; in winter we see in the Niagara River thousands of the buffleheads marked in the film as rare finds on Attu; and observers occasionally witness the film's courting eagles displaying with talons locked in flight at the Iroquois Refuge.


This is not a major motion picture, but I join Mary Pols, whose Time review calls this "an unexpectedly sweet comedy" and adds, "ItŐs like an Easter egg hunt for adults, joyous and sweet. The Big Year competition may be fierce, but the movie is as soft as a bunny."-- Gerry Rising