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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 08:06 am

The Big Year, light but heady

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Steve Martin as Stu Preissler and Jack Black as Brad Harris in The Big Year.

There’s a subculture of people known as birders who engage in a rather unique competition each year. This informal contest is quite simple and a bit antiquated in execution as it involves sighting as many different species of birds in North America and no definite proof is required. Operating on the honor system, these men and women travel hither and yon, some taking pictures of the fowl they glimpse, others merely noting the event in their journals, and do their level best to amass an unbeatable number of sightings. There’s no prize money for winning; there are no trophies given. All that’s attained is a sense of pride, perhaps the opportunity to gloat among your peers and the immediate fear that someone will eclipse your accomplishment with a bit more tenacity and luck the next year.

This gentlemen’s contest is the basis for David Frankel’s The Big Year, an adaptation of Mark Obmascik’s book of the same name which documents the efforts of three birders in 1998, who went on to put up record numbers of sightings. Right up front, the director lets us know that there will be very little resemblance between the book and film as “the facts have been changed.” Nonetheless, the basic premise is employed as we witness three men from distinctly different walks of life set out to have their own big year, which will have ramifications for them all, far beyond the natural arenas where they’ll compete.

Brad Harris (Jack Black) serves as our narrator and he has the most to gain. In his mid-30s and living at home with his parents (Brian Dennehy and Dianne Wiest) after having lost his job and wife because of his hobby, this amiable man decides to embark on his quest despite having little money. This is not a problem for Stu Preissler, CEO of his own corporation who’s set to retire and become a full-time birder, something his understanding wife (JoBeth Williams) tolerates but which remains a source of angst for his right-hand men (Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale). However, the man to beat is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the current record-holder who’s not above playing dirty to retain his title of champion birder. While he’s wily enough to stay ahead of his competition, his massive ego proves to be his biggest stumbling block.

Frankel adopts a pleasant tone for the film, much like his adaptation of Marley and Me. The movie has some gentle laughs, dramatic moments that are never too dire and enough poignancy to nudge the viewer towards an emotional investment. Still, it recognizes the destructive side of this pursuit, addressing the obsessive nature of this quest and the harmful effects it has on its participants. While it forces Brad further into debt and Stu finds himself questioning his purpose in life, the one most damaged is Kenny, who’s gotten so wrapped up in being a birder that his priorities have become hopelessly skewed. That he ignores his beautiful, faithful wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike) shows you how far gone he is. That she stays with him so long is perhaps proof of her own self-destructive tendencies.

More than anything, The Big Year speaks to the internal desires we all harbor, those that seem pointless to others but which we understand to be valid and worthwhile for our own reasons. In the end, the film points out that it isn’t the final tally or the end goal that matters, but that we have pursued our dreams for our own satisfaction, though it may exact a high price. Frankel’s movie is a light-as-air concoction that drives this lesson home and proves to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the film year.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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