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Birders will probably enjoy 'The Big Year'

Reviews of the film "The Big Year" are in, and nationally it did not fare well. A number of reviewers hated it, this newspaper assigning it only one star with an accompanying review that focuses on the film credits and its lack of belly laughs. The reviewer even walked out before it was finished. Overall it did only slightly better, averaging only middling ratings, a few positive, many negative.

I was out of town when the film opened and returned to find my mailbox filled with complaints about the review. One of the mildest read: "I am wondering if you saw the really nasty Jeff Simon review of the new film 'The Big Year.' I think someone like you needs to see the movie and answer his attack. There have been other reviews that have been favorable. I have been to see the film and I did enjoy it."

I hadn't been in a movie theater for several years, but I took those messages as an assignment and located the film. I plunked down my $7.50 and joined just four others in the theater to watch it.

An hour and a half later, I left the theater with a very different impression from those who disliked this film. It is about three birders who seek the North American record for the number of species seen in one year. As those familiar with this kind of listing know, this involves dashing around the continent from Key West to Attu and even far out to sea on small yachts off the California and New England coasts. To give some sense of the number of species involved, my life list is just short of 450; these birders compete at more than 700 in one year. So much for my puny achievement.

OK, that's the technical stuff and, indeed, there is much racing about in cars, trains and airplanes to find those birds. But this is a movie whose real focus is on obsession and friendship. The birds simply provide a base from which to explore those ideas.

Bird watchers are far from the only obsessed people in this modern world. Substitute golf, shopping, televised sports, work, housekeeping or politics and you can find obsessed people. But birding allows this kind of compulsive behavior to be nicely encapsulated into a single year.

During "The Big Year," a marriage disintegrates and a betrothal is undone, but another marriage is further solidified, a new relationship is begun and two of the competitors and a father and son work their way through their differences. These are each well portrayed in this low-key movie.

Jack Black plays the central character in the film. His is the Kenn Kaufman role, the poor guy competing against others who can afford the major expenses involved. Steve Martin plays against type, as he did in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," as one of those wealthy opponents. And Owen Wilson plays the villain of the piece, another rich migrant for whom I finally felt empathy.

There is indeed one point in the film when others feel that Wilson's character is cheating, recording birds he has not really seen or heard. But in an easily-missed episode, he shows his opponents that this is not one of his faults.

Three quick notes all relating to local birding: Buffalo gets a brief mention as a locale for snowy owls; in winter we see in the Niagara River thousands of the buffleheads marked in the film as rare finds on Attu; and observers occasionally witness the film's courting eagles displaying with talons locked in flight at the Iroquois Refuge.

I join Mary Pols, whose review in Time calls this "an unexpectedly sweet comedy."