Friday, October 14, 2011

The Big Year: For the birders

The Big Year (2011) • View trailer for The Big Year
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.14.11

The combined billing of Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black immediately suggests wild ’n’ crazy one-upsmanship, but — happily — The Big Year is rather sweet, leaning more toward mild whimsy than unrestrained slapstick.
The battle lines are drawn quickly, when three dedicated birders — from left,
Kenny (Owen Wilson), Stu (Steve Martin) and Brad (Jack Black) — decide to
try for a "Big Year," by spotting more bird species in 365 days than anybody
else. But will the result be worth the necessary sacrifices?

Credit director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me), who clearly understands the importance of reasonably grounded characters. Then, too, Frankel also has a can’t-miss premise in Howard Franklin’s screenplay, which is “inspired by” Mark Obmascik’s 2004 book.

Obmascik was a journalist with the Denver Post when he wrote this more-or-less factual account of a rather bizarre “extreme sport” among birders, known as the North American Big Year. Participants spend 365 days chasing across the continental United States and Canada, compiling bird sightings and hoping to spot more species than anybody else. There is no prize, beyond the thrill of the hunt and the glory of peer acknowledgment.

Obmascik followed three top contenders in the 1998 challenge; these men, in turn, have been brought to life — more or less — by Martin, Wilson and Black.

The reigning Big Year champion, with an all-time high score of 732 sightings, is Kenny Bostick (Wilson), a contractor by trade who is looking to defend his title ... much to the dismay of his wife, Jessica (Rosamund Pike), who’s looking to start a family. Bostick is simultaneously the object of admiration and scorn among birders; they love to hear his stories, and they grudgingly admire his success.

But they also loathe his smug, know-it-all attitude. Everybody would love to see Kenny lose his crown; at the same time, there’s no question that he displays a level of single-minded dedication that deserves to be recognized.

Stu Preissler is a wealthy industrialist who, thus far, has let work interfere with family life and personal dreams. He has twice retired from the company he founded and built into a corporate titan; he hopes, this time, to walk away clean and make a serious bid for Big Year fame. Stu’s wife, Edith (JoBeth Williams), couldn’t be more supportive.

Last — and, in his own mind, least — is Brad Harris (Black), a nuclear plant software coder who hates his dead-end job and pines for some way to make a more significant mark. Brad looks back at a failed marriage and earlier failed careers; he lives at home with a mother who adores him (Dianne Wiest, as Brenda) and a father (Brian Dennehy, as Raymond) who regards him as a no-account doofus unable to see anything through.

Trouble is, Brad secretly fears that his father may be right.

These men don’t know each other as the challenge begins, nor does this kick-off involve anything as official as a stopwatch or a scorekeeper. Birding is done on the honor system, and while photographs are sought for personal acknowledgment, participants are allowed to claim sightings by eye and even ear. (Personally, I’d deem the latter insufficient: too easy to cheat.)

But migration patterns, extreme weather events and geographic “sweet spots” inevitably lure the same core folks at the same time, and thus our three protagonists frequently find themselves among many of the same friendly rivals. Not everybody’s after a Big Year, of course, and those who are tend not to admit it anyway, thanks to a blend of competitive secrecy and personal voodoo.

Frankel and Franklin establish our emotional battle lines quickly and deftly. Kenny’s the guy we love to hate; Stu deserves some happiness after a lifetime enclosed in offices; Brad’s the scrappy underdog. Both Stu and Brad wear their hearts on their sleeves; Kenny appears not to have a heart.

Wilson is perfectly cast; his contemptuous smirk is so well established that I’m starting to wonder if he might be like that in real life (hope not!). Kenny needs to be different than everybody else, since he’s driven almost solely by macho pride. And yet he’s not entirely a villain; Kenny laments the one bird that has eluded him.

Then, too, Wilson’s performance is subtly shaded; as this year passes, and Kenny spends ever more time away from his increasingly frustrated wife, he clearly understands the growing threat to this relationship. But he can’t help himself, and the divided loyalty becomes agonizing.

Martin’s Stu, in great contrast, understands the value of family; indeed, his is about to get one person larger, with the impending arrival of a grandchild. He’s therefore willing to risk missing a birding opportunity or three, although — judging by Martin’s rueful smile, each time — such decisions cost him.

Unlike the other two, Brad competes mostly on weekends, while trying to hang onto his job. His escapades involve budget flights, cheap hotels and meals of pretzels and peanut butter, with all travel arrangements made by his economy-minded mother. She understands what this means to her son, and Wiest and Black share several cute scenes.

When properly restrained, as he is here, Black makes an endearing “little guy” and unlikely romantic charmer; I’m reminded of the similarly controlled work he did in 2006’s The Holiday, when he quite credibly wooed Kate Winslet. In this case, Brad is drawn to Ellie (Rashida Jones, easily recognized from television’s The Office and Parks and Recreation), a fellow competitor whose ability to mimic bird calls perfectly matches his infallible ear for recognizing same.

Jones is one of many familiar faces is smaller roles; many mid-caliber performers pop up as background characters.

Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale make a hilarious Mutt ’n’ Jeff pair as two corporate underlings who keep trying to drag Stu back to run his own company. Barry Shabaka Henley and Tim Blake Nelson, both easily recognized ensemble faces, turn up among the other dedicated birders. Steven Weber briefly challenges Stu in a quick boardroom scene.

Corbin Bernsen is hilarious as a helicopter pilot willing to do anything to help Stu and Brad spot one particularly elusive quarry, and Anjelica Huston is equally amusing as Annie Auklet, who skippers a boat that ferries birders to key spots. She also hates Kenny: an automatic point in her favor.

Frankel also constructs his film cleverly, with the many locales identified by name and day (as the 365 progress). The running tallies garnered by Kenny, Stu and Brad periodically appear as odometer readings; one extended montage, set among a glorious expanse of fields and marshes, follows various characters as they stumble to spot species that are indicated to us viewers via chalk-like arrows on the screen.

The locations themselves are colorful and varied, none better than an extended sequence on Attu Island: the impossibly remote, Western-most island in the Aleutian chain, and a hallowed ground for birders. Canada’s gorgeous Yukon territory actually stood in for Attu Island; the production crew also made excellent use of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, California’s Joshua Tree and the Florida Everglades, among other spots.

Theodore Shapiro’s whimsical soundtrack is peppered with avian-themed songs, always skillfully used. The Beatles’ “Blackbird” is obligatory, of course, but another (alas, unidentified) folk song makes wonderful use of words that rhyme with “birds.”

The Big Year won’t set the box office on fire, but I suspect it’ll do solid business on home video. Frankel has given us a gentle, warm-hearted saga of friendship, family and competitive spirit, with a solid reminder that championship can take many forms ... and that “winning” and “losing” are, at best, vaguely defined concepts.

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