David Frankel, who directed the hit “The Devil Wears Prada”, tries again with “The Big Year”, loosely based on a non-fiction book. By intertwining the lives and problems of three “birders” the plot uses the otherwise benign hobby of bird-watching to explore, superficially, their human problems. Champion Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) holds the one year world record for most birds seen. He’s pursued in another one year competition by Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) and Brad Harris (Jack Black).
Bostick, a successful home builder with a gorgeous wife (Rosamund Pike) is obsessed with winning – the Great American pastime. He’s conceited, vain, pompous and out to repeat his championship at any cost – particularly his marriage. Stu is a tycoon on the edge of a much wanted retirement. His adoring wife supports his bird-watching fixation, but he is constantly pursued by two of his underlings to keep attending meetings to expand his empire. Brad is a flop. He’s 36 and divorced, and lives with his parents (Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy). Brad desperately wants to succeed at something, and a new bird watching record might just be it. Unfortunately, Brad’s father just doesn’t get bird-watching, and winds up with a heart attack.
The mad race, on foot by helicopter, rental car(s) and bicycle sometimes in drenching rain or bitter cold, goes through beautiful pastoral scenes and elegant plumages. Many of them are digitally created but who can tell?
Will Bostick let his obsession ruin his marriage (or is it going nowhere anyhow)? Will Stu be able to relax, enjoy his new grandchild and escape the ulcer kingdom of big business? Will Brad rebuild his Life With Father, particularly after Papa has a heart attack? Who will win the contest? Will there be a new world’s record? Winning pays nothing except prestige and the cover of Birding Magazine.
The scenery is spectacular. Fine shots are interspersed with the scenes “back home” where the family tensions simply won’t disappear. Too bad the script is so subdued that the comic talents of the three protagonists are a bit wasted. Steve Martin is one of the true comic geniuses of our time (as well as being an art connoisseur and superb banjo picker), but has no outstanding moments. There’s fun in watching the antics of myriad watchers racing to catch a teeny glimpse of a teeny bird. It’s all low-key amusement, with a few moments of tension. Is it worth seeing? Yes, if you are in the mood to relax and not be bothered by a complex plot, interminable car chases or deeply symbolic stuff.