At first it may seem strange that a hugely successful businessman, an engineer at a nuclear plant, and the world’s best birder have anything in common at all. That is, until you see The Big Year, a film about three competitive birders who crisscross the country for 365 days in order to see as many species as possible. Adapted from Mark Obmascik’s book of the same name, the movie has an endearing and quirky cast of characters who show how one pursuit can take everyone on a different path.
In the film, Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), the businessman; Brad Harris (Jack Black); the engineer, and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the previous winner of the endeavor, show moviegoers that birding and birdwatching are two distinctly different pastimes. The competition—the winner is whoever has the highest number of bird species on his list—is the narrative thread, taking viewers to such birding hotspots as the Gulf of Mexico and Attu, the westernmost Aleutian island.
Through their adventures, both birding and not, you see how the characters’ lives weave together over the course of a year. Human relationships strengthen and wither, while admiration for the birds deepens, for both the main characters and the audience (well, at least for this member).
Although comedians play the roles, the humor laced throughout isn’t over the top; in fact, it’s rather light and bubbly. And there seem to be as much thoughtful character development as there is slapstick humor. Tim Blake Nelson, Rashida Jones (from Parks and Recreation, among other things), and Anjelica Huston play characters that help provide context and personalities that color the unique birding world.
The viewer leaves the theater understanding that the movie is actually about much more than simply counting species, or even a love of birds. It’s about going for what you want, regardless of your background or circumstances, and no matter the outcome, enjoying the ride.