Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Year

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

The Big Year (directed by David Frankel, screenplay written by Howard Franklin based on the book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik) is about competitive amateur "birding' (bird-watching to most of us).  I first heard of the story some years back watching an interview with Mark Obmascik on the PBSNewshour.  And yes, I found the story both trivial and fascinating:  In 1998, three people locked horns in an epic "Big Year" race to spot the most bird species in North America in the calendar year.

The current movie is a fictionalized account of this epic contest which pitted then all time Big Year world record holder Kenny Bostik (played by Owen Wilson) a physicist from New Jersey, Stu Preissler (played by Steve Martin) a retiring executive from New York, and Brad Harris (played by Jack Black) a recently divorced nuclear power plant software engineer from Maryland.

Each of the three faced potential sacrifices at home that few of us would want to comtemplate.  Bostik's wife Jessica (played by Rosamund Pike) on fertility treatments desperately wanted a child.  But how can one conceive if her husband's truly never around chasing birds?  Preissler was constantly being called back by his former chemical firm because in the dog-eat-dog world of Wall Street the firm's future and tens of thousands of jobs depended on his negotiating skills.  Additionally, his oldest son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first child.  Finally, both Brad's father (played by Brian Dennehy) and boss (played by Anthony Anderson) thought he was nuts and fundamentally irresponsible.  Brad did the Big Year while still trying to work full-time at his _nuclear power plant_ job.  Asking his boss to take an immediate unscheduled few days off to fly down to the Gulf of Mexico to catch "massive fallout" from a freak storm on the Gulf "during migratory bird season" that promised to knock hundreds of thousands of birds off course (and therefore carry birds from dozens of species that are generally _never seen_ in the United States to American shores), Brad's boss initially thought that Brad was talking about _nuclear fallout_.

During the course of the film the three encounter other birders including a just married couple taking their honeymoon on an utterly desolate island at the far tip of the Aleutian Islands chain (closer to Tokyo than to Anchorage, Alaska) at the peak of its migration season, as well as various rickety hotel and campground owners and boat and even helicopter excursion operators.  Noteworthy is the crusty pacific coast tour boat captain played by Angelica Houston who hated Bostik from the previous time he sought the Big Year record.  Why?  Because Bostik wanted her plow past a whale so that they could spot "some stupid bird."

Yes, the movie's about obsession and at a time virtually everybody is seeking to control their expenses, it's often shocking/gratuitous.  Brad maxed-out all kinds of credit cards to keep-up with the other serious competitors, something that today is well understood as leading to almost certain financial ruin.  Was it worth it?  Guess.

Still there is romance.  Unattached Brad does find a similarly obsessed female birder along the way.  And friendships are made.  Super-rich Stu takes pity on Brad and helps him out as well.  The Big Year is a Hollywood movie, so the story doesn't crash as painfully as it could have. 

What to think of a movie like this?  I generally take the side of dreaming.  But this movie certainly does invite the viewer to reflect on the costs of unthinkingly following them.

"Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.'" -- Luke 14:28-30

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