Title: The Big Year

Directed By: David Frankel

Written By: Howard Franklin, book by Mark Obmascik “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession”

Cast: Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston, Jim Parsons

Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 10/11/11

Opens: October 14, 2011

The next time you get a phone call from a person who says that he’s giving you the bird and wants to tell you where to go, thank him. He is presuming that you’re an Audubon enthusiast, happy to tell you where to find members of a winged species. “The Big Year” shows that multiculturalists are right: there is happiness within diversity. David Frankel’s film scripted by Howard Franklin from Mark Obmascik’s book “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession” ($10.20 from Amazon.com). Obmascik, a reporter from the Denver Post. describes a seriously wacky competition that finds hundreds of bird watchers participate in a contest called The Big Year. Each birder spends three hundred sixty-five days racing around North America compiling lists, respecting the honor system to report how many different species they have seen. Seven hundred thirty-seven had been the record in a contest that garners participants from all walks of life from CEO’s to people who have to borrow money from their mothers. While we in New York are lucky if the pigeons stay away from our parked cars, these birders are ecstatic in seeking our winged friends, even imitating the sounds of the various species, challenging one another to identify the birds being vocalized.

Obmascik’s book follows the 1998 Big Year’s three main competitors—a roofing contractor, a corporate executive and a software engineer, who, though competing for spot #1 and a chance to beat the record form unlikely friendships with one another. While there’s only one winner (and who ever remembers who’s number two?) the three have problems at home. One fellow, a corporate bigwig from New York who wants to retire and pursue his love the year ‘round, finds that real happiness is found at home with his wife and his new grandchild. Another, the software coder, pursues a woman who is a fellow birder, hoping that he can land a spot in her heart almost as much as he wishes to be the new record-holder. A third, a successful roofing contractor, is in trouble with his wife who is taking fertility treatments, but is never there to answer the call of the clinic on the very day he is needed most because he would rather capture the mating rituals of birds in flight.

“The Big Year” is a comedy, though not one that will have you rolling on the floor or in the aisles. It’s more a comedy in the Shakespearean vein, meaning that the characters do not die but have generally happy endings at the conclusion of the story. Three of America’s top film comedians anchor the tale: Jack Black as computer whiz Brad Harris; Owen Wilson as contractor Kenny Bostick; and Steve Martin and hotshot executive Stu Preissler. The real deal in this movie is not so much the characters who, in Hallmark Hall of Fame postures find that their competitors are not people to waylay from the paths of bird scores, but folks with whom they share a common, unusual hobby and find as much camaraderie with them as with their wives and girlfriends. The star of the movie is the photographer, Lawrence Sher, the unseen hero who follows the cast around to one hundred locations largely in Canada (British Columbia and the Yukon) but also to New York and Miami. Come to think of it the entire crew should be praised for squeezing these locations into fifty-five days of filmmaking, braving temperatures from 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Florida to 20 below in Western Canada.

Don’t look for strong women’s roles: this is a man’s movie, though there are some good turns in the story by Rosamund Pike, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston, JoBeth Williams, Cindy Busby and Dianne Weist. John Cleese delivers some narration while men in supportive roles include Brian Dennehy as Brad Harris’s dad and Kevin Pollak as a member of Stu Preissler’s board of directors.

Given the PG rating that I’m surprised it attained considering the machinations of the fertility clinic and the use of four-letter and five-letter words, Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson avoid Judd Apatow vulgarity like avian flu. The trio have genuine chemistry, the whole operation making this absurd hobby look as though it really exists. The big surprise is that, yes, it does! I’ll save a few bucks and watch all the birds I want to see on the National Geographic Channel.

Rated PG. 100 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Story – B-

Acting – B

Technical – A-

Overall – B

The Big Year

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