Film Review | The Big Year
10 min read

Film Review | The Big Year

The Big Year is a very sincere look at the world of competitive birding that lets its humor come from the actual funny things that happen to birders. It's a nice little movie that deserves more love than it's gotten. 8/10
Poster

Producers: Fox 2000 Pictures, 20th Century Fox
Runtime: 100 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
EE Critic Score: 8/10

The Big Year is a 2011 comedy film starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson as three birders competing to set the record for most species of birds observed in North America in a calendar year. The film was based on a book by the same name by Mark Obmascik, which told the true story of the 1998 attempt to break Sandy Komito's Big Year record of 722 species, undertaken by software engineer Greg Miller, and Komito himself. This was the first -- and as far as I can tell, the only -- time that a Big Year was a three-way contest. (The current record, set by John Weigel in 2019, is 840 species; for comparison, eBird.org lists 1144 species observed in the United States as an all-time total, including vagrant species, at the time of writing.) While the film takes the general premise and several details from the book, it is otherwise a fictional account. In a screen of text at the beginning, the film describes itself as a true story with only the facts having been changed.

The Big Year was not a hit when it came out. Critics mostly focussed on how, for a comedy, it isn't very funny. That is, there aren't a lot of jokes or big laugh-out-loud moments. Those poor reviews contributed to the film being a financial flop, with worldwide ticket sales only making back 1/6 of the estimated production budget. It has developed a fanbase among bird enthusiasts, which is understandable given that the list of studio movies about birding consists of this film and half of Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, sorta. I didn't notice it at all back in 2011, but I've since had it recommended to me by people who know me and that I'm into birds. I'd always think to myself "I should really check that out" and then sort of forgot about it. But then I noticed that it had been put on Disney+ (it was a 20th Century Fox production that Disney acquired when they bought that studio), which allowed me to save it to a non-mental watchlist. This past Memorial Day, with the day off and with TV shows I'd been watching wrapped up, I finally took the time to watch the film.

It's good. The Big Year is a solid movie that deserves better than birding-niche-audience cult status. That's why I'm writing this review because I think it deserves what (little) attention I can give it here.

Owen Wilson as Kenny Bostick, Steve Martin as Stu Preissler, and Jack Black as Brad Harris | Still from IMDb

Analysis

NOTE: As always, my analysis will touch on plot points without concern for spoilers. In this case, however, I'll be giving away who wins the contest in the end, which will really ruin the movie if you haven't seen it. Unless you've seen The Big Year already I'd encourage you to skip to the Recommendation & Rating section until you've watched it.

As I said, this is not a laugh-a-minute comedy. There are some snappy lines and a few of Jack Black's signature oddly graceful pratfalls. But the comedy is found mostly in the overall situation. The filmmakers astutely observed that the events in Obmascik's book were already funny. You couldn't make a drama out of The Big Year; you'd probably get more laughs if you tried. And if you tried to punch up the script, the film might have come out the worst for it. The whole reason this movie is, if not exactly funny, persistently amusing is that it is a non-exaggerated look at what actual people might be doing at that very moment. If anything, the film is toned down compared to the book; it would have been perfectly consistent with reality for Jack Black to emerge from a swamp caked head-to-toe in mud, or for Steve Martin to be shown yelling at a mountain lion, or for 400 starlings to simultaneously defecate on Owen Wilson. The movie presents its characters as odd, but in a realistic way. They aren't what you'd call normal people, but they also aren't cartoons.

That said, they are not so true to life that they exactly match the birders they're based on, hence why they are re-named, which was especially useful in that it allowed the film to have what every good narrative needs: a villain. That comes in Owen Wilson's interpretation of Sandy Komito, the ruthless Kenny Bostick. While Komito certainly was a driven birder, I hope people don't universally grimace at the sight of him the way they do Bostick here. Wilson plays the character well. The audience dislikes him but doesn't hate seeing him on-screen. Wilson is good at pulling off a superficially likable but possibly evil character, as he did again later in Loki. By the end, Bostick comes off as more of a tragic character than as a malevolent one. You get the feeling that he does genuinely want a family, he just wants to be the top birder more, and he can't seem to figure out how to get both. This side of the character is fiction; the real Sandy Komito was happily married and had raised children to adulthood by 1998, and he spent New Year's Eve of that year at home with his wife. But it's a fiction that really well in the film, as it keeps Bostick from getting a truly happy ending.

Steve Martin's interpretation of Al Levantin is Stu Preissler, the non-perspective hero of the film. Martin is the most straightforwardly funny part of the film, with scenes focussing on his character's seasickness and lack of sense of smell (both characteristics of the real Levantin). He has a happy home life, in contrast to the other two stars. He is, generally, the happiest character. His conflict is internal. Yes, he has Joel McHale and Kevin Pollack chasing him with business concerns, but they're just a reminder of Preissler's worry that his birding is a frivolous indulgence, something that he's doing when he really ought to be doing something else. That's something that anyone with a hobby can struggle with, and it's depicted well here.

Jack Black's interpretation of Greg Miller is the perspective hero of the film, Brad Harris, who also serves as the film's narrator. Black delivers a likable performance. He's good at portraying enthusiasts. But Harris's story is the weakest of the three. The challenges he faces in attempting a Big Year are mostly financial. He has neither Preissler's money nor Bostick's job flexibility. He takes on quite a lot of debt to travel the country, and he has to work a full-time desk job to support himself even besides the birding. This is brought up early and really hammered home for the first half of the film, but then it's just sort of dropped. He teams up with Preissler (to a greater degree than Miller and Levantin did; they only really joined up to ride a helicopter in search of introduced Himalayan snowcocks, and for a handful of other birds after that) and that's essentially the end of his money troubles. The latter half of the movie has Harris more worried about winning over Ellie, a fellow birder he meets on Attu. He gets off to a bad start by immediately bringing up his divorce, though by the end they're going on romantic birding excursions together. It's a bit of a non-sequitur ending, though it does work with the movie's themes.

Jack Black as Brad Harris and Steve Martin as Stu Preissler | Still from IMDb

Thematically, the film is about how birding, or any involved hobby, can improve or hurt one's life depending on how it's approached. In Bostick, we see the harm. He approaches birding with a fervent competitiveness and an obsession with seeing every bird he possibly can. This wrecks his marriage, but it also wrecks his relationship with other birders. Ideally, people connect over shared interests. Birding connects Harris with Ellie. It also connects him with his father, just as it connects Preissler with his grandson, demonstrating how a lot of enjoyment can be had in introducing a pastime to new people. But birding drives Bostick to seclusion. Other birders threaten him, and his cutthroat tactics make everyone hate him (everyone besides Preissler, I suppose.) When Harris and Preissler come together, they don't beat Bostick but they do better than they would have separately, and they have a better time of it than he does.

The Big Year shows the importance of finding joy in what you do, and of maintaining that joy even as you get good at things or have exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. So much of modern recreation gets optimized, monetized, and turned into competitions, and while this film isn't unique in pushing back on that, it is unique in doing so in a non-trite, show-don't-tell sort of way. As much as the film lacks big laughs, it also lacks sappiness.

So, that's what I thought of it as a film viewer, but what did I think of it as a birder? I think it got things mostly right. The main thing wrong was that a lot of camera zoom lenses seemed smaller than the two-feet-long or longer sorts you'll see if you're ever witnessing to a serious birding group. The birds they were searching for seemed right. (The great spotted woodpecker and pink-footed goose were very far from home, but this was noted in the film, and, given that, a few years ago, a Stellar's sea eagle crossed the Bering Strait from its normal home in northeast Asia into Alaska, then proceeded to swing by Texas on its way to the Canadian Maritimes, who's to say how unrealistic they were.) That said, a lot of the birds mentioned as spotted on Attu would be pretty easily spotted in more accessible locations earlier in the year, so I don't think many birders would first be seeing them there.

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus)
A Snowy Owl | Photo by Erik Karits / Unsplash

There's also an odd change the film made regarding owls that stuck out as odd to me before I even found out that it was a change: Greg Miller and his father saw a long-eared owl, not the great gray owl Brad Harris and his father see. The great gray isn't found that far south, which is why it's such a hard get for Big Year birders. In 1998, it was one of the birds that Sandy Komito missed. In the film, Kenny Bostick's nemesis is instead a snowy owl, a similarly northern owl. But the snowy owl is actually one of the easier owls to get a look at. Unlike most owls, it is active during the day and lives in open country. When they come down from the tundra in the winter, they'll show up in farm fields, parking lots, and rooftops, where they'll stay until all the birders disturb them enough to chase them away. They're really too easy to spot for their own good. Someone like Bostick would absolutely be able to find one, though he would have some difficulty doing so at midnight as depicted as, again, the snowy owl is diurnal.

But besides these picky sorts of things, I do think The Big Year is a verisimilar look at birding. I certainly am not someone who birds at the sort of level depicted here, but I recognized a lot of things, still. The way Harris's father gets excited by the owl is a pretty standard example of the phenomenon known as the "spark bird". The rare bird alert hotlines are outmoded nowadays but were precursors to things like eBird.org (which existed in 2011 when the film was made but didn't in 1998 when the book took place.) And whether we act on it or not, the pull of a rare vagrant bird sighted somewhere relatively nearby is familiar to all birders. I try to avoid birding in crowds (you can read about my experiences doing so here) but when I have it's looked a lot like scenes in this film. The Big Year does an excellent job showing how birding, while certainly an odd behavior, is also just the sort of thing people serious about it can become, well, so serious about.

The depiction of the birds themselves is remarkably spare. There's some stock footage, and a few CGI birds when birds need to share a shot with actors; the effects for these were quite well done for such a low-effects movie. But for the most part, we have to take the birder's word for it that they saw anything, which is the most accurate depiction of the birding experience possible.

Owen Wilson as Kenny Bostick | Still from IMDb

Recommendation & Rating

Going into this film I was expecting a worse experience than I got, so I'm now leery of overhyping it and leaving you disappointed. I'll say that if, like me, you're a birder who's had it recommended to you but you've been worried that it's a wacky, cringey mess like most poorly reviewed comedies, rest assured that it's not; the problem with the comedy, insofar as there is a problem, is a problem of quantity, not quality.  If you're not a birder, you might still like this movie. The only people I'd really warn away from the film are those who actively dislike/fear birds.

Now, given that there's a book, should you read the book before watching the movie? I'd say no. I didn't, so when I was watching the film I didn't know how it would play out, and the movie is more of a straightforward narrative than the book is. Watch the film, then read the book. I found it really interesting to compare what really happened to what the film presented, but I think it would be best to let the film stand on its own. I think that's what the filmmakers intended.

The Big Year is a very sincere look at the world of competitive birding that lets its humor come from the actual funny things that happen to birders. It's a nice little movie that deserves more love than it's gotten.

8
/10Without significant negative worth. Able to be recommended to the interested without reservation.