*** out of ****
If you can get past the simplicity and the predictability of the screenplay; "The Big Year" could very well be a fun and entertaining, if not slightly forgettable diversion from the highs and lows of modern cinema. It never quite makes a contribution to either of the two. It exists on the backburner; I imagine it will be forgotten by the ones who admire it as well as the ones who don't. Hell, I liked it; and I can see myself forgetting all about it in a few years. But for now, I'm going to try and embrace the times and the moment; and I'll go ahead and say that I had a really good time watching this feel-good flick about the hobby known to those associated as "birding"; and those who aren't as bird watching, although you shouldn't use the said term lightly around the feathered-friend faithful.
Unless you partake in the hobby - or have before - you probably won't know what a "big year" is when you go in. Here, I'll save you some of your precious time: a big year is when birders around the world travel worldwide to locate and photograph as many birds as they possibly can. There are three central characters - and a whole lot of ones put on the side - and one of them is indeed the current champion for most birds seen and captured on-camera. He is a man by the name of Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson). He doesn't think he'll ever be rivaled by a fellow birder, but this year is bound to be different.
I say this because the narrator of the story is not Bostick; but rather a low-life whose name is Brad (Jack Black). He's been observing Bostick's position in the world of non-professional birding (is there a profession to be found in this area of expertise?); and he thinks that if he can put the right amount of money and effort into focus, he can make his dream of beating this man's record come true. Things work out for the best for our buddy Brad - in spite of some harsh disapproval from his father (Brian Dennehy) - and soon, he's on his way.
Not too far into his travels, Brad meets a friendly businessman named Stu (Steve Martin); who is also a birder, so to speak. He's also secretly doing his very own big year; and yes, you must not reveal such a thing to those within your area of knowledge. These people treat birding/bird-watching like its Fight Club. They mean serious business.
A lot of the film involves the bond shared between Brad and Stu. The two never seem to be competing against one-another; they are both friendly and respectable people, unlike the arrogant fool (Bostick) who joins them. It's to be expected that there shall be bumps in the road of this rather spectacular relationship; but hey, it's routine storytelling done right, and that's good enough for me. "The Big Year" is not atypical, and it does not try to be, but it's a nicely-told story about people who like doing what they do, even if it's a lot of work for absolutely no pay.
The film was met with unfair criticism due to the uninspired, misguided marketing; which made it out to be a comedy, given the A-list cast, although it plays out even better as a character-driven drama packaged with people that you both revile and admire. You should know this going in; because that way, you won't be disappointed when the laughs aren't plentiful. There are some mild giggles, and they all go down quite easily, but I feel that, among other things, this is a movie about male bonding; and of course, birds.
I like "The Big Year" because it's a sweet, honest, and touching film; with the unexpected addition of beautiful bird photography. Its makers obviously have a love for nature, as they often do their best to capture it as its most majestic. There could have been more scenes of extensive bird photography, but heck, what we get is more than enough. I say that if you want to see this movie, you should take it as it wants to be taken; not as comic brilliance, but as dramatic commentary on men and their strange obsessions. The three leading men all bring a surprising sense of realism and honesty to their roles; and a lot of the time, we're convinced that these people really love birding. There's truly nothing nicer than watching people be happy and intelligent; so "The Big Year" is pleasant and easy-going enough to be, well, kind of likable.