You may faintly recall the previews for The Big Year (2011), the Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson birding flick that came out about a year ago - "dumped" is more like it - on American theater screens. With more than a whiff of desperation, the trailers emphasized the comic stylings of the stars and featured a couple of scenes (fake-looking birds mock-attacking a shrieking woman, Martin and Black doing a jig) that made the movie look like a strenuously wacky farce. (It may have included James Brown's "I Feel Good," I can't remember.) Like everyone else I gave The Big Year a wide berth, finally catching it recently as a what-the-hell Netflix pick, and I'm here to report it's a real find. It's a lyrically paced, beautifully shot, meditative comedy about three lonely men who become friends or, at least, respected rivals over a shared obsession. No wonder Hollywood didn't know what to do with it.
What Hollywood did do right (before the movie's release) was give $40 million to a talented director to shoot a thoughtful script about an unconventional subject with a familiar-faced cast on one gorgeous location after another. (Canada doubles convincingly - sometimes for U.S. locales, sometimes for itself - for many of the trans-American regions.) Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs) and written by Bill Murray's Quick Change co-writer and -director Howard Franklin (adapting the 2004 book by Mark Obmascik), The Big Year chronicles an annual competition among devoted birders to see and identify the most species of birds. The rules are...none. The winner gets...nothing. It's all done on an honor system (photographs are often taken, but unnecessary), with prestige accorded among only the inner circle.
While duos are a staple of most screenplays, from buddy movies to romantic comedies, I often find more interesting rare films that feature a lead trio. (I know romcoms often feature "romantic triangles" - and, who can forget, Harry Potter - but the deck is usually stacked against one of the characters.) Something about triangulation lends itself unexpectedly well to narratives ranging from L.A. Confidential to The Big Year: we get to see the characters as individuals and in pairs; the scenes stay fresh and varied and inform one another. In The Big Year, Brad Harris (Black) is the underdog birder, a low-level nuclear power-plant employee who pulls together his meager savings for a shot at the world record. Stu Preissler (Martin) is a wealthy entrepreneur whose efforts to retire (and have a "big year") are thwarted by turmoil within the company he founded. Kenny Bostick (Wilson) is the defending record-holder who thrives on competition, to the chagrin of his wife back home. As Brad, Stu, and Bostick (referred to with derisive irritation by his last name, a la "Newman" on Seinfeld) trek from one end of the country to the other - a middle passage on frigid Attu Island is a highlight - we meet their fellow birders (including Rashida Jones, Jim Parsons, Anjelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, and TV weatherman Al Roker) amid pauses with their families (Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy as Brad's parents, JoBeth Williams and Rosamund Pike as, respectively, Stu's and Bostick's wives).
The Big Year does a nice job grounding the principals in their disparate worlds. (Dennehy, in particular, puts an expert spin on the so-very-tired disapproving father routine that eluded good actors like Chris Cooper in October Sky and Robert Patrick in Walk the Line.) It's tough to make integrity and decency appealing onscreen - or at least that's what Hollywood tells us, as an excuse to never try it - yet The Big Year is most compelling when it envelopes us in the (mostly) world of birding and the silence and patience it demands and accords. Brad and Stu's friendship is touchingly developed, and brings out Steve Martin's best work in eons. (Martin has always been more of a soloist than a team player, yet he connects with Black, even when the latter a few times oversells the wide-eyed self-pity.) As Bostick, Wilson reminds us of his ability to play unlikeable and yet remain engaging in spite of it. The movie teases us with suggestions that Bostick is a cheater, yet when it's revealed that he plays by the rules, the character becomes more interesting and earns a grudging respect.
Even tougher to pull off, The Big Year makes the world that the trio share look - for all its obstacles - alluring. The problem with obsessives is they frequently mistake telling you all about themselves for actually sharing why they love what they love, and in convincing you why you should too. (To put it another way, their emotions about a particular subject seem to matter more to them than the subject itself.) The Big Year isn't a great film, but it's precisely the kind of good one that recalls enough of the pleasures of what used to be known as conventional narrative filmmaking to seem almost quaint. (It also continues the curious, time-honored tradition of experts enjoying a movie about their specialty that critics and mainstream audiences ignore -- see also medieval historians on The Thirteenth Warrior.) Frankel and Franklin keep the narcissistic yammering to a minimum. Wisely, instead, they invite us into their movie, teach us the terrain and the lingo ("fallout" is given an amusing connotation), show how different people can forge a common bond (what else besides birding could bring James Wolcott and Jonathan Franzen together?), and give us reason to stay.