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The Big Year review

Along with probably half of North America's birding populace, I went to see The Big Year last night. Finding a seat was no issue - the 10:30 showing had only six other people in addition to myself and a friend. Possibly not a great omen that this flick is going to achieve blockbuster status.

On the outside chance that you are not familiar with this "birding" movie, here is the description courtesy the Rotten Tomatoes website: "Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson are at a crossroads -- one is experiencing a mid-life crisis, another a late-life crisis, and the third, a far from ordinary no-life crisis. From David Frankel, the director of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, comes a sophisticated comedy about three friendly rivals who, tired of being ruled by obligations and responsibilities, dedicate a year of their lives to following their dreams. Their big year takes them on a cross-country journey of wild and life-changing adventures."

I knew I'd like the movie after a Cape May Warbler popped onto the screen early on. It was followed by a who's who cast of fabulous North American birds; easily the most sophisticated showing of avifauna in a big screen production. It'll be a long time coming before another movie sports the likes of Xantus' Hummingbird, Long-toed Stint, Smew, Hoary Redpoll, Spectacled Eider and many other mega-rarities. I noticed that one of the credits listed "Bird Consultant - Greg Miller". Greg was one of the three protagonists in Mark Obmascik's book The Big Year, which was the inspiration for this movie. His character is played by Jack Black. And Greg is undoubtedly the reason that the movie accurately interjects so many interesting birds.

Of course, there are scores of inaccuracies regarding birds, but it would be daft of me to try and list them all. I went in to the movie knowing that ornithological errors would probably be frequent, but didn't really care - the movie is intended to be a comedy, and the movie industry has never shown much interest in getting their birds straight. I'm sure there'll be a cadre of propellerheads surfacing before long with detailed nitpicks over every mistake in the movie.

The movie is lush with wonderful shoots of fabulous landscapes, including the Rockies (where we see a midwinter scene featuring the highly migratory Swainson's Hawk, which would be in South America at that time); Attu in the Aleutian Islands chain; Floridian swamps and numerous other places. Some of the bird footage is stellar, and if you are a birder, you'll enjoy picking out and trying to identify the dozens of species that make appearances. In particular, sensational and dramatic footage of a Bald Eagle pair in talon-locked free fall courtship drew gasps of admiration from my (few) fellow movie-goers.

There were three bird-related scenes that I thought especially cool. In one, Owen Wilson's character (playing the real life Sandy Komito) crashes his car on a mountainous Oregon road in his frenzy to reach the next locale. Stumbling from the vehicle, he hears a woodpecker making an odd tap-tapping. Hunting it down, he discovers a Great Spotted Woodpecker. This would be a mega-tick of the highest magnitude; the thing of which hardcore birders dream. If you have spent much time in these circles, you've heard the wishful thinking/idle speculation about finding such a bird. What is also admirable about this scene is its sophistication regarding the woodpecker. Finding a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the Pacific Northwest is probably not completely out of the realm of possibilities, although nearly so. It has turned up in the Aleutians.

In another noteworthy scene, Jack Black's character Brad Harris is showing his skeptical father - played by Brian Dennehy - photos from a recent trip. When he comes to an American Golden-Plover in basic plumage, Dennehy disparages it as a plain jane gray bird. That prompts Brad to launch into an impassioned speech about the plover's enormous migration and global wanderings that pulls a bit of the magic of birds into the scene.

Brad's unrelenting enthusiasm for birds starts to rub off on his father, who decides to join him on a search for the Great Gray Owl. The pair work their way into a dense and snowy forest, and Brad splits off from his father to seek the bird. But lo and behold, it is Dennehy who calls Brad back, who returns to find his bird-struck father gaping at one of the world's most spectacular owls. That scene captured the awe one can feel when in the presence of an animal such as the Great Gray Owl.

From what I know of the three real life characters that spawned the book and this movie, director David Frankel and the actors pretty much pegged them. It's kind of interesting to watch the interplay between the three, the progression of the year, and the competition. But it kind of falls flat. There are few comedic highs, and a lot of plodding mediocrity. If a viewer was not smitten with birds, I don't think they'd find this movie very engaging.

In a way, I found that the competetive listing emphasis cheapened a movie that is dense with beautiful scenes of nature and birds. Non-birders, after seeing this flick, will probably think that's what birding is all about - avian stamp collecting. Indeed, in several places, the Owen Wilson character is whispered about in reverential tones as the "world's best birder", presumably because he has spent bucketfuls of money traveling about to set the Big Year record.

My experience with mono-focused hard core listers is that a great many are anything but good birders. Too many of them just want to be ushered to a spot, shown the birds that they seek, retreat, and calculate their next tick. Once, while I was walking a road in Churchill, Manitoba, the legendary polar bear capital of the world and one of the most accessible areas for Arctic-breeding birds, a tour bus approached. It was full of birders, mostly from California, many of whom were rabid listers there in large part to tick the Ross's Gulls that then could easily be found. Their leader asked me what I was looking at, to which I replied "Northern Shrike". The "butcher bird" was teed up and ripping apart some unfortunate mammalian victim. When the guide reported this to the bus's contents, a collective "Oh, we've already seen that" went up and no one budged. If I wasn't already, that experience turned me off from the all too common listing mentality. A truly great birder is someone such as Ted Parker, Alexander Skutch, or Margaret Morse Nice - people who not only loved birds and their identification subtleties, but plumbed the depths of the species that they studied to figure out how they interacted in a much bigger picture than a mere check on someone's list.

The Big Year is not going to set any box office records, and beyond the birding set, my hunch is it will rather quickly fade from view. The average non-birding Joe or Jane won't really get this movie, and the rather tepid humor and plot probably won't engage them. Birders, on the other hand, will thoroughly enjoy The Big Year, and the more hardcore the birder, the more they'll probably like it.

Oh, who "won"? Well, to find out which birder saw the most species, you'll have to see the movie.


dwaynejava said…
Great Review Jim. The two scenes you described with the Spotted Woodpecker and Grey Gray Owl resonated with me as well. As usual, your blog postings are intelligent, humorous and well written. -Dwayne
Auralee said…
I'm with you on the issue of hard-core listers. I have a pocket-sized notebook in which I write down everything I see on a birding excursion, even birds I have seen before (well, I might not bother writing down robin or house finch!) Animals and plants, too. But I don't know how many birds are on my life list, because I've never bothered to count, and to me it's not the point. Generally I know if a bird is new or not, and that's exciting, but I get no less excited if I come upon a flock of cedar waxwings eating berries.
Tom Rooney said…
Great review, Jim.

I saw it opening night. I read the book this past summer and had no expectations that the film would follow the book too faithfully. That said, the film was delightful. It was not a knee-slapping comedy, but I found myself laughing a little more frequently than most people in the audience. Subtle birder humor?

I saw the film with a Peruvian who was visiting this week. He works in the Amazon and does a lot of guiding work, and is an avid birder himself. He very much enjoyed the film as well. (And during his brief visit, SW Ohio gave him 56 life listers.)
Diana Malas said…
Nice write-up, Jim! We enjoyed it very much, but likewise only had about 6-8 fellow moviegoers in the theatre tonight...
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks for the feedback, everyone! Sparse attendance at showings seems to be the norm, and it looks as if TBY is shaking out to be birder's movie, and that's not enough to make it a box office smash.
Lilac Haven said…
Great movie. Reminds me of some of our adventures in wildlife watching. (Including running through the woods in Upper Michigan this past week to photograph a Barred Owl).
Doug Marcum said…
Thanks for the review Jim! I still haven't made it to the movie theater yet, but I will very soon! I was glad to discover that the birds featured in the film were accurate North american species.

I totally agree with your feelings on "listers". It's unfortunate that many just see birds as a check-off box on their list and don't appreciate their simple beauty and ecology. Cedar Waxwings eating berries always make me happy too : ) as Auralee said. I feel like many nature photographers have a similar mentality to these birders, like they don't actually appreciate things for what they are.

Anyway, I'm glad that there are also many people like us who are continually mesmerized with all of nature's beauty large and small, common or rare : )
Michelle said…
One of my favourite movies. I'm writing a story based off it, plus I'm going to do a big year some day (I wonder if you can do so in the UK? I'm not from the UK, I just hope to live there someday). That's how much it inspired me.

P.S. if you ever want to read the story, just ask. I haven't finished the first chapter yet...

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