Obsessive and competitive: ‘The Big Year’ birding movie

My Amazon Fire Stick must be figuring me out because its “movies you might like” prompts alerted me to “The Big Year,” a 2011 comedy about a trio of birders who obsessively pursue as many sightings as possible.

Appropriately, the odious villain — Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) — is a Jersey guy.

As the movie opens, Bostick frets that his record of 732 sightings will be challenged and broken by somebody else. He and his wife are trying to conceive a child, and Bostick repeatedly disappoints her by dashing out of their Montclair home every time a rare bird is sighted or a major storm brings an abundance of birds to a particular area, including a landfill in Texas.

Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) is a New York executive who can’t quite fully cut the cord to the company he runs any more than he can resist the urge to pursue a bigger bird count. In contrast to Bostick, he is devoted to his wife, who accepts and supports his incessant travel to find birds.

Brad Harris (Jack Black) is a financially challenged birder at odds with his father who decides he’s the one who’s going to overtake Bostick as the best birder in North America.

The three men each set off on a “Big Year” quest and soon enough encounter one another on the trail. Bostick and Preissler converge over a garden gnome in British Columbia in pursuit of a rare hummingbird. Harris (for whom Black nicely tones down his manic portrayals of the obsessed) enters the fray and is the first to confide, over dinner and drinks with Preissler, that he is indeed pursuing a “big year.” Bostick and Preissler play coy about their intentions but eventually reveal them.

How these three bird-obsessed men manage to finance their travels (even the wealthy Preissler) requires a bit of suspension of reality. But once you buy into it, the game is afoot and believable for an hour and 40 minutes.

The movie takes birder obsessions to extremes but there are some underpinnings of realism, at least as I’ve known in my birder development.

In one scene, a colleague doesn’t understand Preissler’s devotion to “bird watching.” Preissler replies tartly that it’s not “bird-watching” but “birding,” an active pursuit. In another scene, a British birder notes how only the Americans could turn birding into a competition.

I’d be lying if I said there’s no competitive aspect to my birding. I check to see my ranking at the hot spots and hope to move up, not so much to compete as to demonstrate that I’m gaining knowledge and experience. But that’s a mere fraction of my pursuit, which is based on a love of birds and other wild creatures and on the enjoyment of learning from and with others as we take in the natural world.

Maybe I’ll formally pursue a “big year” when I retire, but I don’t expect I’ll be flying to the Aleutian Islands or pursuing a hawk by helicopter in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, as the characters in the movie do.

To me, every year is a big year, in its own small way.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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