Making the Grades
One person’s hobby can be another’s obsession. Keeping passions in check, especially when competition is involved, proves to be a challenge for three men caught up in an American Birding Association annual bird count.
Starting on January 1, they, along with hundreds of other bird lovers, begin recording their sightings for the year. While some take pictures, the contest is based on the honor code and the rivalry can be fierce at times.
Stu Preissier(Steve Martin) is a highly successful business mogul who has been trying to retire for a long time so he can have a big year. (In birding terms, that is a competition where participants compete to see or hear the largest number of birds in a geographic region within a calendar year.) Thankfully Stu’s wife (JoBeth Williams) is supportive of his ambitions.
Brad Harris (Jack Black), at 36, has dropped out of grad school, given up a good job and been through a divorce. He wants to prove he is capable of completing something by having a big year. Brad’s mother (Dianne Wiest) agrees to be his travel agent, arranging for his flights for the next twelve months. But his father (Brian Dennehy) thinks his son is crazy.
Kenny (Owen Wilson), the reigning birding champion, can’t abide the thought of someone dethroning him. So although his current wife (there have been others) is undergoing fertility treatments to conceive, Kenny has a difficult time being present for his part in the process. And it goes without saying how his wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike) feels about being her husband’s second interest.
Following the theme of movies like The Bucket List and Eat, Pray, Love, these participants zero in on their own self-interests for an entire year. But the outcome at the end of the season is different for each of them. Some are better for it. Some are not.
But don’t dismiss this movie if the thought of spending weekends, holidays, vacation time, money and travel points counting birds doesn’t appeal to you. (It certainly doesn’t to me.) The story applies to any activity that grows from an interest, to a passion, to an outright addiction.
A peppering of mild profanities along with a rude hand gesture are the biggest content concerns parents will find with this film. A couple and medical personnel also discuss conception, yet for the most part it is very clinical and vague. At one point a man is briefly threatened with a knife because of his past bad behavior, and a couple of exhausted birders have a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. Still, these depictions are minor in comparison to the overall message of the movie and the stunning scenes of cinematography.
Made with the involvement of the National Audubon Society, this comedic look at this avian avocation may spark some interest in the outdoor pastime. However even if the movie doesn’t result in an upswing in binocular sales, The Big Year provides an entertaining reminder to all enthusiasts—don’t lose focus of the things that matter most in life.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Big Year.
Learn more about the National Audubon Society and their involvement with the filming of The Big Year.
How does Kenny define his self-worth in this story? Why is he so unwilling to let someone else beat him? Why is it remarkable that he abides by the honor system even when he wants to win so much? What do he and the other character sacrifice for the sake of their pastime?
What other examples can you think of where a person lets an interest become an obsession? How can a person keep their hobbies in check?