Saturday, October 15, 2011
The Big Year: A Birder's Review
I should state, going into this review, that I have not read the book upon which this movie is based, although I intend to, and have, in fact, already downloaded it onto my Kindle. So the following impressions are strictly based on what I saw today on the big screen, and not the book and what may or may not have actually transpired in real life. Sometimes I find it's actually better to do it that way. If I read the book first, the movie often disappoints; but done in reverse, I often end up enjoying a similar experience twice.
The movie states at the very beginning, "This is a true story. Only the facts have been changed." Just so we all know where we stand. The story involves three birders, Brad Harris (Jack Black), who works as a programmer at a power plant but is otherwise not very successful in his life, having dropped out of grad school, failed in his marriage, and being financially dependent upon his parents; Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a wealthy executive who is trying to retire, even though the corporate world is loath to let him go; and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the current record holder for "the Big Year," a building contractor who apparently lives to bird.
Readers of this blog are probably already familiar with the concept of the Big Year--an informal competition to see as many birds as possible in one year in a given area. (Often North America but readers of birding adventure literature are doubtless aware of the fact that this can also be done in other locations or even world wide a la The Biggest Twitch. For birders of quite modest means, such as myself, one can also do a state or even county Big Year.) Suffice to say, to be tempted by the thought of a Big Year, one must be a rather hard-core, obsessively list-making type birder...not that there's anything wrong with that. The movie quickly fills all the non-birders in on the idea with a short pseudo-documentary narrated by John Cleese, then quickly cuts to the chase, and we get to see the three fellows competing for birds. Bostick is ruthless and underhanded, and woefully neglects his wife; Brad is hampered by a lack of funds; and Stu seems like a fairly normal guy whose main challenge is being pulled in too many directions.
The story is mildly humorous. The characters are mildly likable, except for Bostick, who is mildly annoying. When it comes to movies, I am usually easy to please but hard to impress, and with that being the case, I can safely say I enjoyed it but found a lot of room for improvement. For example, the birding---as a birder, there's nothing I enjoy more (outside of actually birding) than a vicarious birding experience. Well, this is a film about birders, but it is not a birder's film. We get brief depictions of birding hotspots (High Island, Attu Island), a few nice views of of good birds (the great gray owl moment brought back happy memories of seeing one at Sax Zim Bog last winter), and a character who is clearly based on the well-known Debra Shearwater and her pelagic tours. But, it's hardly Birder's Porn, although that's OK. I have Winged Migration for that. So if it's not Birding Porn, then is it a good character study of what makes hard core birders tick?
On the contrary, I would say that the lack of depth to the characters is probably the film's biggest weakness, and why all the non-birder critics who panned it just didn't understand. If you're already a hardcore birder, no explanation is needed. You know why someone would go into debt or risk their marriage to chase down birds. (Many critics seemed to feel that Bostick's hosing up his relationship with his wife to continue the Big Year was not realistic, but, in point of fact, many relationships have been strained or even ended because of a birding obsession--so, although presented a bit melodramatically, the concept wasn't that far off.) But if you are not a hard core birder, then this movie probably won't shed much light on the topic. The characters just really love birds or want to be "the world's greatest birder." Despite these short-comings, I did enjoy the movie. It was fun, not too serious, and certain scenes were quite entertaining (the gulls on Attu Island, for example). Greenturtle also said he liked it. And more to the point, he said that it made him look forward to going birding with me tomorrow, when we head back to Lake of the Woods by Champaign.
So would I recommend it? If, based on the description, you think you would like it, then you probably will. If, like many of the critics I found through Rotten Tomato, you think birding is boring (and even call it "birdwatching" without even knowing what you've done), or more properly relegated to PBS documentaries, or don't understand why on earth anyone would do a Big Year...then you probably won't.