The Big Year: a Theory about the Nature of This Film

Lynn and I saw The Big Year a couple of weeks ago, and I liked the film's heart quite a bit, even though it had a number of stupid moments, and the dialog could be atrocious. It was somehow satisfying, even though it didn't entirely hold together. Having the shape of a year for the film's structure gave it at least a sense of consistency.The movie, in brief, focuses on three birders who compete (for no money, mind you) to catalog the most bird sightings (by eye or call) in a single year. One is the previous title holder; the other two are making their first attempts. Improbably, the gross outline of the story is true, based on Mark Obmascik's book of the same name, even down to the professions of the three birders and where they travel. What I found odd about the movie was that it was struggling to be slapstick and stupid at times mixed with subtle emotional performances by Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin. A friendship between Black and Martin is underdeveloped, but genuine. Owen Wilson's character is a trickster, and overdrawn, but he and his current wife, a rather young woman, have some remarkable scenes together. (It's not a hackneyed film for the most part: I kept being surprised when I expected the same old clichéd moment, and the filmmakers brought a whiff of the real world in.) The slapstick is quite half-assed. Jack Black is required to do pratfalls, but they're perfunctory, and then he's right back up to run out and find the birds. Gorgeous moments punctuate the movie, which clearly had crews travel tens of thousands of miles for location shots. And there are true shots of birds throughout. (The closing credits show, by category, hundreds of birds catalogued by the birders in the film.) What I suspect happen is that they filmed a lot more nonsense with Black, including more physical comedy. When they edited the film, they realized that they had a quieter and more genuine story in the middle, and trimmed off more of the nonsense. There's still a lot of improbable characters and actions, but it's a truer film. Now I need to read the book. Sounds like truth is funnier and more interesting than the lightly fictionalized version I saw.