'The Big Year' takes a nice flight

The trailer for "The Big Year" gives the impression that this film will be a flat-out comedy, verging on slapstick. The three characters, birders all — Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), Brad Harris (Jack Black) and Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) — are shown peering through binoculars, out in the rough, implying that this will be a hoot of a roadie film.

It isn't.

But wait. What it is, is a sweet and charming story with three consummate actors at the top of their game, each facing a personal crisis, each coping in his own unique way. Their method of coping involves The Big Year, an obsessive quest by birders to sight as many bird species as possible within one calendar year and so beat the previous year's record — which happens to be held by Kenny (732).

"The Big Year" is delightful, taking the trio from the Aleutian Islands to the Everglades of Florida. It's a race — by helicopter, rental car, foot — played out against the calendar. The band of birders, who belong to an eccentric tribe to be sure, are prepared to do whatever it takes to rack up a high bird count. And they're not above dissembling about their strategy.

It would've been easy for the filmmakers to fall into caricatures regarding the birders. They are indeed an unusual, geeky group who worship at the shrine of these small puffs of feathers that are miracles of evolution.

In "The Big Year" the birder palette forms a delightful context for Stu, a tycoon conflicted about his imminent retirement, who escapes wife and corporation, as he joins the hunt; there's Brad, divorced, a bit lost, living with his parents, in love with birds and their esoteric sounds; plus Kenny, who, despite pleas from his wife, Jessica (Rosamund Pike), who desperately wants a child, consistently chooses birds over family.

Naturally, there are a few life messages embedded in this genial film, one being how obsession — in this case birds and winning The Big Year — can distort life's priorities. At the outset, each one of the trio has a need to look at birds far more closely than at the people standing close by. All three characters are confronted with a choice, most especially Kenny, and each has to make an existential choice.

These moments of truth are not masked by comedy, though there are scenes that will bring a smile.

But beneath the patina of competition that forms the narrative arc of the film resides genuine and compelling passion. And if not passion for what we do, our endeavors, those things that cause our hearts to race, what else is a life for? No matter that in the case of Stu and Brad and Kenny, it's a red-throated warbling woodpecker or a Northwestern old-growth snow owl.

This is what makes "The Big Year" such a special film.


Teenagers will come to "Footloose" with fresh eyes, not realizing that this teen dance drama, full of life and joy, was a huge hit in 1984. It starred Kevin Bacon as the big city kid who finds himself in a small, rural burg where they've outlawed loud music and dancing. No exceptions. The '84 film became an instant hit with young moviegoers, capturing the collective imagination of a generation.

But that was then, and this is now, and "Footloose" has been tweaked nicely for a contemporary audience. However, the '84 narrative is still intact, right down to the old VW and red cowboy boots. In this incarnation, the setting is Bomont, a small Georgia town, and the city kid is Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald), newly arrived from Boston. He's grieving (he recently lost his mother), a bit angry, grateful that his uncle has taken him into his family, but not prepared to hear that Bomont, after a tragic car crash some three years before, wherein five high schoolers were killed, has outlawed all loud music and "lascivious" dancing.

On his first day of high school, Ren meets Ariel Moore (Julianne Hough), the preacher's daughter, who is emotionally lost and damaged after losing her brother, the son of Rev. Shaw Moore, in the accident. She has expressed her grief by being the local bad girl, hanging out with a local stockcar racer.

And so Ren finds a mission: he decides to change the town's ordinance against music and dancing. Of course, the kids are all behind him, and he and Ariel find each other along the way.

The movie is filled with youthful exuberance, the music and the energy wonderful. Watching Wormald and Hough dancing together is a delight. They both have the "it" factor; they glow on the screen. And Dennis Quaid delivers a fine performance as the local preacher who is responsible for the ordinance.

Tension between adults and teens is timeless. The old folks set the limits and the youngsters figure out how to get around them. That theme always resonates, and it will once again in this new version of "Footloose."

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