The Big Year  (Rated R)  Four Stars 11-09-11-movie.jpg

The Big Year (100 minutes) is surprisingly restrained, consid-ering both Jack Black and Owen Wilson have starring roles. Not only is the picture fairly low-key, it also manages to avoid any ob-vious audience manipulation. Considering that David Frankel also directed the emotional cannonball that was Marley and Me, we can all be grateful The Big Year didn’t involve a lot of dead birds and crying children. I mean, dead birds do appear, but early in the film before the audience gets emotionally invested in them, so it’s okay.

Weirdly, writer Howard Franklin, who adapted the Mark Obmascik birding (never bird-watching!) novel, not only wrote what is arguably the best Bill Murray vehicle ever (The Man Who Knew Too Little), but also scripted The Name of The Rose AND Romancing the Stone, which is a weird resume if I ever saw it.

The film introduces us to the world of competitive bird-ing, peopled with obsessives who are nonetheless also trusting fools. Example: In attempting to achieve the North American Bird Watching Record for most birds seen during a big year (or something … I’m not clear on the actual title), it is sufficient to report seeing or hearing the birds … photographic evidence is not required. Since achieving this record apparently elevates winners to superstar status, worshipped by teenage boys everywhere they go, it seems like there should be safeguards in place to prevent heading over to the zoo and claiming those birds for one’s list. But maybe I’m just a cynic.

In any case, it seems pretty obvious that the title is for a rich man to win. Who else would have the time and money to travel around the United States averaging more than two unique bird sightings a year? Of course, that means in addition to the independently wealthy Bostick (Wilson) and the desperate-to-retire Preissler (Steve Martin) we get the adorable underdog Brad Harris (Black). I am instantly reminded of the good stormchaser/bad stormchaser dichotomy set up in Twister, where any hobbyist with money is automatically evil, while the scruffy underfunded little guys are always good (see also Dodgeball and Rocky IV).

Brad is divorced, and his daddy (Brian Dennehy) is surprisingly unsupportive of him taking a year off to run through his meager savings. Bostick, the current big year record-holder, is married — and his wife is surprisingly unsupportive of his plans to fly around the U.S. for a year and look at birds. Preissler, in the midst of phased retire-ment, has a supportive wife (JoBeth Williams) but unsup-portive coworkers, who keep interrupting his big year to trick him back into the highly lucrative job that he loves.

The three meet several times before the plot really gets going, and there are several plot points set up, only to be dropped without resolution. For example, it is implied several times that Bostick might have cheated, but it is left for the au-dience to decide one way or the other. Maybe failing to spell out every little detail is not such a bad thing. However, since the idea was not introduced in a subtle way, the viewer waits for a dénouement that never comes.

Rounding out the cast is Rashida Jones, playing a love in-terest shoehorned in to the story. As is typical for Hollywood, the film is essentially about male bonding and men finding themselves … women are only bystanders.

Finally, for those of you dying to know, the criteria for The Big Year shown in the film limits the birders to the American Birding Association area, which excludes Hawaii. Approximately 925 bird species have been seen in the United State and Canada, and the winning number in the film is more than 700 bird species seen in a single year.

Now showing at Wynnsong 7, Carmike 12 and Carmike Market Fair 15.  

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