The Big Year was alright. It was neither horrible nor outstanding, neither fully factual nor completely made-up, neither completely engaging nor totally alienating. I would give it a solid “B-” as a birder whether I was grading on a curve or not. If you are a birder you should, of course, see the movie. If you are not a birder there is no reason to see it in the theater because despite the fact that the movie is about birding there is very little that is exciting or funny or original and little in the plot that is not cliched.
What did I like? I loved the scene where the character played by Steve Martin looks at a hummingbird with wonder in his eyes. I thought the scene where the character played by Jack Black and his father find a Great Gray Owl in the woods was touching. Some of the interactions between Jack Black and Steve Martin were great. I usually like all three of the lead actors and I felt that Steve Martin was as good as ever. Angelica Huston was great as the pelagic boat captain but played such a small role that she could not hope to save this average movie from mediocrity. Ditto for Rashida Jones, who plays the Jack Black character’s love interest. The interplay between birders and their non-birding loved ones ring true, especially between the Steve Martin character and his family. But, mostly, I liked that birding was on the big screen and that is the main reason that this film gets the “B-” that it does.
What didn’t I like? I didn’t like all the things the movie got wrong. Who can focus entirely on a movie and suspend their disbelief when what they are watching is riddled with errors? And The Big Year is loaded with mistakes, misrepresentations, and misconceptions. Sure, some are done in an attempt to get laughs or for plot purposes but the movie would have been much better if it were more accurate. Examples? The person who “wins” a big year competition is not the best birder in the world; fallout is not a situation where a cloud of birds hovers in the air for apparently hours; late in a North American big year no one but the most incompetent birders are excited about adding Sandhill Crane; birders do not stand around trying to stump each other by making bird calls; no birders run up to a spot, throw their binoculars to their eyes, spot a bird, and then run on seemingly at random; there is no motel adjacent to the Brownsville dump and when birders bird that dump they do not stand around in garbage up to their knees; and neither Pink-footed Geese nor Swainson’s Hawks show up on a mountain in Colorado in the middle of winter. There is no reason for a movie to get basic things about birds and birding wrong unless no real effort is made to get things right.
Jack Black was out of his element and the occasional pratfall failed to elicit even a giggle from anyone in the audience. Owen Wilson could have really shone as a character that was a huge deal in the birding world but a real loser in his family life but his performance was flat. Jim Parsons as a blogger hardly factored and what little screen time he had was lousy and essentially pointless.
Now I am sure some readers are reading this and thinking to themselves things like “Well, Corey had a vendetta against this movie” or “Corey sounds like a comic book nerd angry that the movie about his favorite comic slightly altered the origin story of the protagonist” or “Who is this guy and what is he talking about?”
Honestly, I would have much preferred to see an outstanding birding movie. It would have been good for birding and made me feel like the $13 we pay for a movie theater ticket here in Queens was well spent. But the fact that this movie debuted this past weekend and grossed a total of $3.325 million on 2,150 screens is not a good sign (just over $1,500 per screen is just not enough). Odds are that The Big Year will quickly fade from the big screen and from most people’s memories. No matter how you slice it, that is not good for birding. Maybe if real outreach had been made by the studio into the birding world there would have been more people getting to the theater? Nah…I’m not going to second guess.
To sum up – If you are a birder go see this movie because it is the last time for a very long time that a major studio will make a movie about birding. If you are not a birder there is no reason to see this movie at all.