The Big Year

“So, David Frankel. In your career so far you’ve explored two of the most archetypal facets of human experience – working at a fashion magazine and owning a dog which dies. Where on earth can you go from there? Oh, of course. How stupid of us not to assume you’d segue straight into making a heartwarming comedy about a series of men who salve their respective crises by seeing HOW MANY BIRDS THEY CAN COUNT IN A YEAR.” What? Seriously, what? The Big Year is quite enjoyable, but somewhere along the way that conversation must have happened and we still don’t understand how.

Before we start, a few facts. 1) Birdwatching, or ‘birding’ as the Yanks call it, has a small but dedicated following Stateside. 2) The ultimate aim for any American birder is to complete a Big Year – that is, to spot as many birds as they can in the United States in one calendar year. 3) The record US Big Year was achieved by Kenny Bostick (Wilson), whose 732-bird score remains unbeaten. That is, perhaps, until this year.

Unfulfilled divorcee Brad Harris (Black), who lives at home with his parents and spends his spare time learning bird calls, has dreamed for most of his life of completing a Big Year – the only problem is that he’ll have to do it in his weekends and on a shoestring budget. Meanwhile, company director Stu Preissler (Martin) is finally retiring so he can attempt his first Big Year while evading the anguished calls of his executives. And Bostick himself is once more taking to the road to check out the competition and make sure nobody’s got a chance of touching his record – regardless of what his neglected wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike) thinks about it. As Brad’s ringtone will remind you every six or eight minutes, “A-well bird bird bird, bird is the word…”

I know, I know – The Big Year sounds utterly shit, doesn’t it? And objectively, there’s no reason why it’s not. The theme is so odd that it requires a massive whack of exposition right at the start, which is then periodically topped up by Jack Black’s endless bloody voiceovers. The jokes never really make it above chuckle standard, the plot is relatively predictable and the ending is quite unforgivably schmaltzy. Why on earth should you watch it? As far as I can work out, it’s because although nothing about The Big Year is particularly edifying (or, truth be told, particularly hilarious), it’s hugely satisfying.

Most of this, of course, comes down to the reliable and well-written central triumvirate. The main characters are genuinely beautifully crafted and very well cast – it’s always nice to see Jack Black doing something that feels a bit more like Real Acting, whilst Owen Wilson continues his run of really quite good performances and even Steve Martin summons up a ghost of the actor he once was. A variety of conflicts, alliances and so on bubble up and die down with commendable realism, somehow injecting a reasonable quantity of legitimate drama into what would otherwise be an impossibly fanciful film. The rest of the casting is solid too, although Christ only knows whose idea it was to cast Rosamund Pike in such a pointless little role – still, she’s as excellent in it as she is in everything *swoon*. Elsewhere, Brad’s obligatory love interest Ellie (Rashida Jones) is charming and very watchable, and there’s an unexpected but spunky turn from Anjelica Huston as the no-shit-taking captain of a wildlife-spotting boat.

It goes without saying that if you’re into birds you’re going to absolutely bloody love The Big Year. If you’re not (probably a fair assumption), your best bet is to avoid the trailer altogether and just give it a shot. You might find yourself getting into birding after all, just as Jack Black’s dad does just in time for their inevitable reunion (told you it was predictable); but even if you don’t, there’s plenty to enjoy in this inoffensive little film.

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