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Review: 'The Big Year' not for the birds

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
updated 3:02 PM EDT, Fri October 14, 2011
Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black are out to spot birds in
Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black are out to spot birds in "The Big Year."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Big Year" stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson
  • The title refers to a competition among bird watchers
  • The film includes a bit of bird trivia as well some nice supporting performances

(CNN) -- Birders define "a big year" as an informal competition to see who can spot the most species of birds in a certain area in a calendar year.

Let me start off with a disclaimer: I am a bit of a bird nerd. Not a serious birder by any stretch (I have never gone on vacation specifically for the birds, for example ... well, not a long one, anyway), but my iPhoto has been known to contain more than a few shots of birds, and my iPhone does have iBird Explorer Plus. Oh, and as a child, my dad and I would spend the occasional summer afternoon in the country listening to records of bird calls.

However, just because I like birds doesn't mean I am predisposed to liking a movie with a lot of birds in it. I am a huge baseball fan too, but am perfectly able to recognize a bad baseball movie when I see one. "Major League 2," anyone? In addition, a good film needs to have something to it in addition to the surface subject matter. What I am trying to say is, just because this is a film about birding doesn't mean it's a film about birding.

Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), Brad Harris (Jack Black) and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) are three birders who may (or may not) be attempting a Big Year. The thing is, it's such a competitive field that those attempting such a feat tend to keep the information to themselves, so as to not inspire the competition. Paying possum is a big part of a Big Year.

The head of a corporation, Stu is nearing retirement age. He wants to quit the rat race, do something for himself (A Big Year, natch) and settle down in Colorado with his wife, Edith (JoBeth Williams). Of course his corporate underlings, smarmily played by Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale, continuously try to pull him off the road and into the board room.

Brad, in his mid-30s and divorced, is low on funds and morale. He's stuck in a job he hates and aches to do something truly great. As a birder, this means breaking the world record held by Bostick (almost always referred to by his surname with a mix of derision, awe and envy by his fellow birders).

For Stu and Brad, while the undertaking of a Big Year is exciting, it's also a means to an end, not the end itself, and the journey is at least as important as the result. One of the joys of this film is watching their excitement when some El NiƱo weather phenomena means that there's a likelihood of a mass of grounded birds (a storm in Florida) or a super rare sighting (a pink-footed goose, rarely seen in the U.S.).

To the arrogant and absurdly colorfully attired Bostick, however, the Big Year is personal and more about him than it is about the birds. It's his record, and his status as world champion is more important to him than anything, even his devoted wife, Jessica (Rosamund Pike). Bostick is constantly promising to hang up his binoculars and start a family, only to receive a call with a rare bird sighting somewhere across the country and hit the road again.

Stu and Brad quickly become friends and repeatedly run into each other throughout the year in far-flung parts of the continent, and travel they do. "The Big Year" takes them from Maine to Key West to Arizona to Attu Island, Alaska, the westernmost island in the Aleutians, closer to Russia than it is to the Alaskan mainland (of course the production didn't actually shoot there, but they did shoot in the Yukon). The scenery and wildlife on display are at times breathtaking.

The thing is (up on my avian soapbox, again), I can see the appeal. After all, birds are amazing creatures. They can fly, which is amazing in and of itself, and oh, by the way, isn't one of the most common dreams the one where you're flying? Add to that their place in evolution, their diversity, strength and behavioral differences, and they're pretty interesting creatures.

While it's mostly about the humans in the cast, the sheer number of birds on display (stay for the running list during the closing credits) is astonishing, with some quite interesting (and in one case downright touching) bits of bird trivia thrown in. It's not hard to see how large groups of people could get caught up in the activity. In fact, a 2006 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department puts the number of birders nationwide at 48 million. That same year, the activity created 671,000 jobs and added $36 billion to the U.S. economy.

At the heart of "The Big Year" is the idea that we all have our passions, and why are any passions any weirder than any other? Surely, on a list of odd obsessions, birding ranks far below hoarding or, say, dyeing your dog to look like a panda.

Supporting turns are all solid, with special notice to the always lovely Rashida Jones as Ellie, the female bird nerd who captures Brad's interest, and Anjelica Huston as the comically and aptly named Annie Auklet. Dianne Weist and Brian Dennehy are perfectly cast as Brad's parents. If there's ever been a non-related trio that looks more like a real family, I'll eat my special birding hat. Kidding. I don't have one ... yet.

"The Big Year" is a charming, uplifting and heartwarming film, and when it's funny (which is often), it's very funny indeed. It has a simple but compelling story to which everyone, birders and non-, can relate, great chemistry between Martin and Black, and a heart. It's nice to see a film that doesn't have a mean streak and also doesn't talk to adults like they are idiots.

"The Big Year" is rated PG. There's a minor swear word or two, but that's about it.

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