Born to Birding: ‘The Big Year’

“They’re men. If they ever stop competing, they die.” As Edith (JoBeth Williams), stoic wife of a birder, watches her man head off on yet another adventure in search of a fabulous and strange species, she’s not imagining that he’s going to come back enlightened, more passionate, or even richer. Rather, like the rest of the women in The Big Year, she’s resigned to her own lot as the partner of someone whose genetic makeup determines his behavior and destiny. And hers, too.

It’s hard to see what any of the women in The Big Year have at stake in their men’s avocation. That doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t see a stake, but it doesn’t make it easy, either. The film’s premise, laid out in clumsy and unclever narration by one of the birders, Brad (Jack Black), is that birders love the outdoors, that they appreciate the beauty of the creatures they seek, that they feel “born” to birding. He acknowledges as well the other part of this activity, that the spotting of exotic species can become an obsession and indeed, that the competition among birders can become debilitating — emotionally, socially, and especially, domestically. Still, in the story told by Brad, the pay-off is worth these risks. He, at least, finds human connections in birding.

The movie, alas, goes a long way around to get to this completely predictable end. Brad first has to learn about the problems built into in any competitive endeavor, especially, apparently, when it involves “men.” Brad’s stuck in a cubicle job, so his preoccupation with the birds is something of an escape from a familiar drudgery. He’s 36, divorced, and, as he says, prone to eat processed treats. He’s also close with his parents, Brenda (Dianne Wiest), who encourages his passion (as he’s loved birds since he was a little boy), and Raymond (Brian Dennehy), who wishes his son had never seen a bird.

As Brad doesn’t’ quite explain his passion to his dad (their conversations conclude with matching shots of their fuming faces, as mom agonizes), he does find a couple of fatherish figures in the two boy birders he comes to know best over the course of his Big Year (when a birder tries to see more different species than anyone else and gets noticed for doing it by a magazine). The hyper-competitive one is the reigning champ, Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson). Notorious as someone who will do anything to add to his numbers, and also to ensure his fellows will not see so many, he’s got an issue from scene one with his wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike), who wants to have a baby. Apparently, he can’t even find the time to spend a night or a fertility clinic appointment with her.

This cad is contrasted with Stu (Steve Martin), way too rich and anxious to retire from the company he founded (despite a couple of underlings’ recurring efforts to pull him in for one last deal). His wife, Edith, is supremely supportive of his “dream.” This even if he misses some time with his son and his pregnant wife, and even if she has to manage a couple of homes and her own career (she stays in a fancy Paris hotel while he calls her from the boonies). As Stu takes off on private planes and helicopters, the fact that he can so easily finance this Big Year would seem to overdetermine his winning the prize.

But, the film has it, that’s not always the case. Success in birding depends on commitment, such that even Brad — with a full time job, which his boss (Anthony Anderson) lets him leave pretty much at will — might aspire to win. The other oddity, so odd that the film makes a point of explaining it, is that the birds on each competitors list are the function of an “honor system.” You don’t need photos or recordings or even plane tickets to prove you’ve been somewhere: all you need to do is say you’ve seen a bird. Or heard one: Brad’s special gift is that he can identify birds by sound alone, admired by even his fellow birders.

This illogic is compounded by another, that the competitors who all know they’re competitors pretend to each other that they’re not pursuing their Big Years. They hang their heads or look the other way, waving off queries as to whether they’re listing birds. This means they can feel betrayed by one another more easily than they feel supported, all of which looks awfully silly from the outside, as they’re all meeting each other again and again at various sighting spots.

These meetings — swarms of mostly white men assembled in swamps or on mountainsides — suggests that the activity attracts a certain demographic. But The Big Year allows that there are exceptions, including a couple of appearances by the completely context-less Neil (Barry Shabaka Henley) and a few more by Ellie (Rashida Jones). She’s the cutest girl on these excursions, and as the single man, Brad fixes on her. It takes time for him to work up the nerve to speak to her, though she shows interest right off, being a skilled amateur bird caller who likes to try to stump him with the noises she makes. (You might imagine that this situation seemed both plausible and comic when it showed up in a screenplay. On screen, it’s neither.)

As Brad and Ellie head toward their expected coupledom, The Big Year offers a glimpse of a movie it might have been, a romantic comedy, generic but maybe vaguely energetic. This has to do with Jones’ charisma and timing, and also with Ellie. A girl looking at this in this men’s competition from a couple of perspectives (inside and out), she looks healthier than anyone else in the picture.

RATING 2 / 10