More than anything, The Big Year plays like an innocent homage to old school PG films. It’s harmlessly sweet, telling a simple story of three men at different stages in their lives who decide to put everything on hold to chase their dream… A dream to be the number one birder in the world.
Brad Harris (Jack Black) is a desk jockey at a Virginia nuclear power plant, but he’s got a greater passion than worrying about securing the threat of a nuclear meltdown… birds. Brad dreams of winning The Big Year, a yearly competition where birders around the world compete to see who can spot the most species of birds in a 365-day period.
The current record holder is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), a New Jersey contractor whose wife (Rosamund Pike) dreams of kids and growing old with her husband, but he can’t seem to get birds off his brain. Each year Kenny tests the waters to see if anyone has a chance at beating his record of 732 birds and this year he’s ready to risk everything once he realizes Brad isn’t the only one threatening to take him down.
Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) is a big city businessman who’s ready to retire to a simpler life, spend time with his wife (JoBeth Williams) and new grandchild, but before he does, his one big dream has been to compete in The Big Year and this is his year.
As these three travel from the Florida Everglades to the Aleutian Islands the competition heats up to the point Brad and Stu reach the point they will do anything to ensure Kenny doesn’t win. With a massive supporting cast that includes the likes of Anjelica Huston, Kevin Pollak, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Rashida Jones, Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, Tim Blake Nelson, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley and even Corbin Bernsen as a crazed helicopter pilot there is a familiar face around every corner, each bringing a little something to the film at every turn and yet it never feels as if it’s trying too hard.
Despite the cast, The Big Year isn’t a laugh-riot comedy, it’s more of a humble feature with a dash of real world laughs here and there. It’s focus isn’t to sell you on laughter but on the stories of the three leads as their ornithological obsession guides not only their year but the beginning of the rest of their lives. I realize that sounds a bit deep, but it’s spot on if you don’t take it too seriously.
The story’s innocence never allows the actors to stand out in any major way, though Wiest and Dennehy fit like a glove as a married couple and I continue to wonder why Pike can’t seem to get larger roles than the continued number of supporting characters she plays. Even here, with little to no dialogue and most of her lines being cliched, troubled wife comments, she still pulls them off with an astonishing level of grace.
Martin, Black and Wilson are as you would expect, though if you’re expecting an energized, bouncing-off-the-walls performance from Jack Black, maybe visualize his dialed back performance in The Holiday instead.
Overall we’re talking about an innocent little picture and probably one you can wait to see at home rather than race off to the theater, though if you’re looking for a warm bath kind of film that will soothe more than excite, The Big Year is a pretty safe bet.