Ads for The Big Year seemed to position it as a comedy, which I guess isn’t strictly wrong, but anyone expecting raucous laughs will be disappointed. It is funny; Steve Martin never fails to amuse, Jack Black has a few masterful pratfalls and Owen Wilson is as glib as ever. However, The Big Year is not a film reliant on jokes, it is character driven. And bird driven. It repeatedly starts obvious comic set ups only to quickly deflate them. The Big Year purposefully avoids it comic potential to tell a more sedate, thoughtful story.
The Big Year is about three bird watchers, or birders as they apparently like to be called. Steve Martin plays Stu Preissler , a successful businessman who is eager to retire and enjoy his hobby full-time. Jack Black is a down on his luck middle class guy who wants to do something special. And Owen Wilson is the champion birder who is planning to start a family with his wife. All three end up doing a big year, which is a birder’s attempt to see as many birds as possible in a single year. As much as this movie is about these three characters, it is also about the birds. I am going to assume that the bird information is accurate, though I know little about it myself, but the film revels in the scenery and wildlife of North America. They travel to the four corners of the continent in attempts to see the most rare of birds. Each of the main characters face personal challenges to complete the big year. Real life is always trying to draw them out of their birding obsession, from business, to family to simple survival.
The competition between the trio is mostly downplayed. Black’s and Martin’s characters immediately become friends and their one spat is quickly resolved because both characters are adults. Which is why the laughs are a bit lacking in this supposed comedy. Situations arise that would normally be the fodder for jokes, but characters in The Big Year act like adults for the most part, hurting the comedy potential. Owen Wilson is sneaky, but never truly underhanded. In all it is remarkable how nice and likeable all the characters are. Wilson’s constant absence from his wife opens up the possibility of her cheating on him, but even though he is playing the villain here, he is not a bad enough guy that viewers would relish his comeuppance.
In the end, The Big Year is almost more of a tragedy than a comedy. Each character faces important decisions over the course of the year and must live with the results of those decisions. The results are not unexpected, but in at least one case it is quite sad. AS a comedy, this film lacks humor; as a drama it lacks focus. It is a likable but forgettable movie that entertains but never truly engrosses the viewer. The Big Year is about three men choosing what is most important to them and having to face the consequences.