Based on a non-fiction book by Mark Obmascik, the story follows Brad Harris (Black), a mummy’s boy and IT worker who is obsessed with birds of the ornithological kind. His dream is to take a year out and spot as many bird types as possible to win the coveted, annual Big Year, an informal competition dominated by the world’s best birder, Kenny Bostick (Wilson), who finds all kinds of devious ways to put others off the scent of the whereabouts of the feathered friends. Stu Preissler (Martin), a successful captain of industry, wants to retire completely from the corporate game and concentrate on a shot at the title. Through their avid love of birds, the three begin on an adventure that will change their circumstances forever.
At the heart of Frankel’s comedy beats an unbridled passion of sorts, with a quirky insight into the sacrifices made to stay at the top of the game that will resonate with all that watch it. It’s also a coming-of-age story for all three men entering different stages of their lives. Wilson, Black and Martin are as affable as ever, if too congenial to the point of being rather innoxious for some – even with Bostick’s scheming. However, they still make up an entertaining trio, with the latter two no strangers to playing oddball comedic characters and taking birders in their confident strides. At the same time, a strange, quietening respect for their characters’ choice of pastime grows, especially as it offers a chance to travel and see and learn a bit about nature – a candid reminder for some workaholic viewers of life outside the office’s four walls.
This release or escapism, coupled with the film’s joie de vivre, is warmly infectious, and also masks Frankel’s and screenwriter Howard Franklin’s mere surface-level look at what really drives such a person to do such an all-consuming and committed task. Admittedly, without the personal life dilemmas – Harris’s strained relationship with his father, Bostick’s crumbling marriage, and Preissler’s desire to leave the corporate rat race, Frankel’s film would become a totally pointless one, bordering on offensive farce.
These sub-plots may detract from the birding path of the primary goal – to see the next Big Year winner crowned – but they also act to keep the characters grounded and more believable as they struggle to juggle things back home. In fact, all three actors could have played over-the-top caricatures, but Frankel keeps the humour following through the tragic fallout of their actions, which in turn endears them to us more.
The only incredulous part of the whole affair is how no one cheats, especially as just recognising a birdcall equates to having spotted it – Harris being the master of this, but this and the rules are not fully explained. In a nice little bit of extra fluff to add to Frankel’s romanticising of the pastime, Harris’s calls attract a new human mate. Naturally, Ellie (Rashida Jones) is totally out of his league under normal circumstances, if it wasn’t for her unusual hobby. Still, as groan-worthy as this might sound, it’s always undeniably cute to watch the underdog get the girl, and live to tell the tale at the end. And just to add some fun British eccentricity to the mix is John Cleese as the historical montage narrator.
The Big Year is as mild a comedy as one gets with personable characters, so as to normalise the birder and allow us to empathise with their calling – as well as attract the family audience. Its draw is not only the fascination of how such a subject matter transpires to be funny without becoming idiotic, but also the appealing combination of Wilson, Black and Martin, who play it safe and sound in this. Perhaps, in a whole different premise, Frankel and co. might have taken a bolder step into the darkly comedic look of the birder’s psyche and added more of a gust of air into this film’s feathers to allow it to soar above its cautious comedic charms.