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Film / The Big Year

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The Big Year is a 2011 film adaptation of the 2004 nonfiction book by Mark Obmascik starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson as three birders, each trying to break the "Big Year" record for the most bird species seen in North America in a calendar year.

Inspired by… the true story of the 1998 Big Year competition (as recounted in Obmascik's book), it follows Black as Brad Harris, a computer programmer with an expert knowledge of bird calls who's saved up enough money to finally do a Big Year; Martin as Stu Preissler, a corporate executive on the verge of retirement; and Wilson as Kenny Bostick, a contractor and the current record-holder with 732 species.

Tropes in this film include:

  • Artistic License – Ornithology: Very minor example (not surprisingly - see Shown Their Work below): in the scene near the beginning where the three protagonists start their Big Years on January 1 the stock footage used to represent Brad's view through his binoculars clearly shows at least three species of seagulls in view...then the counter graphic representing his species tally ticks over to one.
  • Benevolent Boss: Brad's supervisor isn't really into birding and seems to find his obsession with it slightly odd, but is nonetheless remarkably understanding about short-notice requests for time off to chase rarities.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Stu becomes one to Brad.
  • Black and Nerdy: Dr. Kramer: Presumably an MDnote  and definitely the holder of some kind of Doctorate, and a birder to boot.
  • California Doubling: British Columbia and the Yukon doubled for most of the American settings.
  • Cool Old Guy:
    • Stu, who forms an intergenerational friendship and a non-competitive rivalry with Brad.
    • Brad's dad goes from a Grumpy Old Man disappointed with his son to approve his birdwatching hobby after listening to his passionate lecture about the golden plover. He even accompanies Brad in one of his watchings.
    • Fellow birders Dr. Kramer and Dr. Elkin. Even though they appear in very few scenes, they are nice and like chatting with other birders like Brad, most notably when Brad is about to board Annie Auklet's ferry.
  • Cool Old Lady:
    • Brad's mother who approved Brad's decision to do the big year from the first day. She goes as far as giving a credit card and drive like crazy to get her son in time for the plane.
    • Stu's wife, Edith, who also approves Stu's hobby and does not see it as an obstacle for their marriage.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Stu lost his sense of smell in an accident with industrial chemicals, which comes in very handy chasing rare birds at a garbage dump.
  • Determinator: All three main characters, in their own ways.
  • The Film of the Book: That probably very few people reading the original book ever expected to see.
  • Flipping the Bird: Bostick, to two British birders who complain about him pushing ahead of them at one point.
  • Going To See The Rare Birds
  • Gotta Catch Them All: This is a movie about birders. While most birders view the whole "lists" thing with a level of good humor, the serious ones still get quite determined about their listmaking.
  • Happily Married: Stu and his wife, Edith. Edith approves Stu's longtime dream of doing the Big Year and does not see it as an obstacle for their marriage.
  • Happy Dance: After Brad finds out Ellie broke up with her boyfriend.
    Ellie: Did you just do a victory dance?
    Stu: No. (chuckles) Maybe. Yes, I did. I did. Well, not a victory dance so much as a dance of celebration.
  • Horrible Camping Trip: The honeymooning couple on Attu.
  • In Vino Veritas: When Brad first tells Stu about his Big Year attempt.
  • Inspired by…: To quote the opening titles: "This is a true story. Only the facts have been changed." Though aside from the characters' names being changed, their personal lives being fictionalised and the story being reset in the 2000s, the movie actually follows the nonfiction book it was based on quite closely for the most part.
  • Insistent Terminology: Stu corrects a colleague who makes the mistake of calling birding "bird watching." Definitely Truth in Television in this case.
  • Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk: Bostick. Any time the film begins to portray him as not such a bad guy, he immediately does something selfish, rude or underhanded in the pursuit of victory. Although it's worth mentioning that he won't fudge his numbers.
  • Knowledge Broker: Rare bird alert hotlines.
  • Limited Special Collector's Ultimate Edition: An Extended Edition was released on DVD and iTunes which differed mostly by having John Cleese's Wildlife Commentary Spoof restored in place of the shorter narration by Jack Black that was used in the theatrical release.
  • Living MacGuffin: Any bird, really, but the snowy owl in particular takes this role for Kenny, as does the pink-footed goose for Brad and Stu.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Stu and Brad's adrenaline fueled and almost dangerous helicopter flight, Brad receives a call from his mother informing that his father suffered a stroke.
  • My Biological Clock Is Ticking: Bostick's wife desperately wants to get pregnant and the time he spends birding instead of attending the fertility treatments strains their marriage.
  • Never Trust a Trailer
  • Newscaster Cameo: Al Roker gives a report on a storm that forces migrating birds to land in one place.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Unlike the book, the names of the participants were changed and the events of the 1998 Big Year record attempts were explicitly changed to another year, despite the exact series of unusual weather events that made the 1998 record possible being accurately depicted.
    • In particular, the introductory narration at the start of the film specifically establishes that Sandy Komito is not the same person as Kenny Bostick by crediting Bostick with having broken Komito's old record.
  • Peking Duck Christmas: Bostick's pursuit of a snowy owl leaves him eating Christmas Dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant.
  • Product Placement: Subtly done and not too pervasive, but we can tell that Bostick uses Zeiss binoculars, while Stu's are Swarovski and that Stu and his family wear Spy ski goggles.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Bostick managed to finally see an snowy owl and win the Big Year. But it cost him his marriage with Jessica.
  • The Rival: Bostick.
  • Rivals Team Up: Brad and Stu towards the end, on the theory that someone has to beat Bostick's record.
  • Rummage Sale Reject: Much of Bostick's wardrobe fits this category, sometimes edging into Rainbow Pimp Gear territory.
  • Scout-Out: The Explorers at High Island, TX.
  • Second Place Is for Losers: Invoked by Bostick in a discussion with his wife but ultimately deconstructed at the end by Brad and Stu.
  • Self-Made Man: Stu.
  • Serious Business: Birding. Even people who don't know any birders, have never done any birding, and couldn't tell a Robin from a Red-tailed Hawk are aware of how serious top-notch birders are about their birding.
  • Setting Update: Very subtle example, with obviously modern cellphones, at least one hybrid vehicle and a minor blogging subplot added to an adaptation of a book about events that took place in 1998 (the beginning narration also explicitly establishes that the movie takes place after 2003).
  • Shout-Out:
    • To real life: At one point Stu suggests Bostick might be aiming for "some ridiculous number" for a new record, when Brad asks what would be a ridiculous number he replies "740? 745?": 745 being the actual record Sandy Komito set in 1998...
    • If you look closely, Brad's boss has a Mr. Burns bobblehead on his desk.
  • Shown Their Work: Thankfully played straight, for the most part, with accurate depictions of birds and their calls.
  • Snow Means Death: Played with: Brad starts to worry about his father, who recently had a heart attack, and becomes increasingly agitated while trying to find him after the two split up in a forest with snow falling all around them but it turns out he's fine and has just found the great gray owl they were looking for.
  • Tempting Fate: Brad reassures Stu that even though he missed the plane to Attu Island that he can still see lots of birds "unless there's a freak blizzard". Guess what happens.
    Brad: Sorry about the freak blizzard. I shouldn't have said there's gonna be a freak blizzard.
  • Those Two Guys: Dr. Kramer and Dr. Elkin, two other birders only identified by name in the credits and a deleted scene who crop up at most of the big birding hotspots throughout the year.
    • Also Barry and Jim, Stu's two assistants at his company.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Brad's cantankerous father thinks there are better ways his son could spend his time and money. However, he changes after he had the stroke, when his son shows him some of the photos he made and talks passionately about the golden plover's migration.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Only for the three main characters.
  • Wildlife Commentary Spoof: John Cleese's narration.