While the (two, so far) Grad Group Coordinators have been more or less active in Cinema 1544, participation from other admins has been pretty sparse.  Najwa decided to buck that trend by offering to take a pair of presentation slots – and she selected two films I haven’t seen, the first being one I hadn’t even heard of.  That first turns out to be The Big Year, a 2011 comedy with a massively all-star cast directed by David Frankel.

The elusive birders demonstrate their remarkable ability of sextupular vision

The Big Year breaks new ground in film-making by diving into the seedy underworld of birdwatching.  Yes, that’s right, I said “birdwatching” – even though technically it would appear that the correct term is “birding” even though grammatically that shouldn’t even be a word.  Birders are apparently quite sensitive over their terminology, and it brings to mind an incident from my undergrad days, when my dormies and I were trying our hands at intramural Ultimate.  While we were hanging in a group one of the crew said, “Hey, toss me that Frisbee” at which point a casual bypasser decided to get all up in our faces about how it was “disc”, not a “Frisbee”.  It nearly escalated to a full-on fistfight, and while not belaboring the whole thing, I will point out that my own ability to bite my tongue and not return volley with a particularly witty (and nasty) comeback probably resulted in the fine, straight nose that I still have to this day.  So, please: “Birding”.  This is a movie about birding.

In particular, it is a movie about three birders, each of whom has independently decided that they are going to try for a “Big Year”, in which one attempts to view, over the course of one Jan.-Dec. calendar year, as many bird species as possible in North America north of Mexico.  The rules here are a bit arbitrary.  Evidently Hawaii does not count, but Attu, the outermost island of the Aleutian chain, which is quite a bit closer to the Asian mainland than it is to the North American, counts just fine.

Put down that cocoon!

Our first birder, played by Jack Black (his name is Brad, but I mean, he’s basically Jack Black), is a thirty-something divorced computer programmer who is evidently living at home and trying to hold down his full-time job while pursuing his Big Year on weekends and using vacation time and the like.  His father spends much of the movie antagonistic towards his son’s dream, but after suffering a heart attack he comes around in a true family bonding moment just like you knew the film would deliver, and even helps his son to find an elusive species.

Birding?!?  Let’s talk about chicks, man!

Our second birder is Steve Martin (again “Stu”, but yeah, Steve Martin), who is a retirement-age CEO trying to get himself a year away from it all before he steps down, all the while also trying to negotiate his company being bought out by 3M in some sort of billion-dollar merger.  Or something.  It’s a side plot, and doesn’t serve to do anything except add stress to Martin’s pursuit of his Big Year.

Two circumstances conspire to get Martin and Black to effectively team up in their Big Year pursuit.  First, they happen to see each other in a lot of the same places (locations and times when a lot of species can be seen together, for instance).  And second, they gather that Owen Wilson (Kenny Bostick, or simply “(derisive sneer) Bostick” through most of the film), who is currently the Big Year recordholder, is going for another Big Year, and they want to beat him.  Of course, birding evidently being pretty competitive, neither initially admits to the other that they are going for a Big Year, and once Black finally blurts it out because he can’t control himself, Martin still holds back leading to Black finding out about Martin’s pursuit by other means.  We have a falling out, we have a reconciliation, it’s a comedy, it writes itself.

You need to bleed. A lot. A lot, a lot. The head wound kind of bleed. A crime scene kind of bleed.

For Owen Wilson’s part, he’s the current recordholder (732, which according to our resident birder, who did in fact attend the screening, is on the order of 90% of the total you might possibly be able to see in the competition area, including rare itinerants that may not visit every year), so you’d think that he might rest on his laurels a bit.  Furthermore, he’s married to Rosamund Pike, and she’s in the middle of fertility treatments, and she needs him around, providing further incentive for Wilson to cool it for a year.  Unfortunately, Gone Girl was not to be released for three more years, so Wilson did not quite understand the possible consequences of scorning your wife, particularly when she is Rosamund Pike.  Note to audience: this is a bad idea.

Attu, brunette?

So given that this is a comedy, and given that Martin is being steadfastly supported by his wife and family and Wilson is relentlessly driving his marriage into the ground, and given that somebody has to fall in love (them’s the rules!), it’s obvious that the winner of the you-get-a-new-girlfriend lottery is going to be Jack Black.  Jack hits it off with fellow (non-Big Year) birder Rashida Jones and her uncanny birdsong imitations, and she likes him too, so obviously she’s going to have a surprise boyfriend that he doesn’t even know about until he arrives in her city, having taken her up on her invitation to go birding (though he might have hopefully taken a somewhat, shall we say, British interpretation of the word).

Never fear!  This is a comedy, and by New Year’s Eve Rashida will have broken up with this boyfriend for unspecified reasons so that she can make that Blue Footed Booty – I mean Booby! – call and they will live happily ever…well at least until the credits roll.  Even though Jack Black comes in second in the Big Year to Bostick, who breaks his own record.  The end.

Look!  It’s a Vincent Van Goshawk!

Here is a partial list of things that The Big Year does not deliver: gore; nudity; hot-and-ready pizza; any plot points or moral lessons that you could not have derived from just watching the first five minutes and having watched a few movies before.

Here is a partial list of things that The Big Year does deliver: very impressive scenery (including what does in fact from image searches appear to be Attu); an unthinkably amazing cast, including narration by John Cleese; some pretty good laughs; a great soundtrack (the jazz piano cover of the Beatles’ Blackbird was chilling).

It was fun.  It didn’t change my life, but it was fun.  Interestingly, despite the massive cast, this movie did very poorly at the box office.  I didn’t even KNOW it existed before Najwa selected it, which suggests that the studio really did not give it any marketing at all.  In the end I think they saw a somewhat milquetoast screenplay set in the not-quite-ready-for-matinee world of competitive birding and decided that no amount of marketing could make it a hit.  They may have been right on that point.  But it’s a film that deserves to be quite a bit better known than it is.