For the Birds: Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson Have a ‘Big Year’

Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin in
Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin in "The Big Year"/Photo © Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Like “The King of Kong” or the Nathan’s hot-dog-eating extravaganza, “The Big Year,” opening today, dramatizes an unexpected competition: an annual contest, known as a “Big Year,” to spot the most varieties of birds in a calendar year. Based on Mark Obmascik’s nonfiction book, the film depicts the events of 1998, when the combination of El Niño and the determination of three men produced the greatest Big Year battle in birding history.

While birdwatching — even competitive birdwatching — may not sound like the stuff of movie plots, Obmascik’s telling is in the tradition of the sporting narrative. The Big Year follows New Jersey contractor Sandy Komito, wealthy Colorado retiree Al Levantin, and Maryland computer programmer Greg Miller on their quests to beat each other to the Big Year record. Their adventures, which take them across continental North America, highlight the obsessive nature of birding, a world filled with colorful personalities and numerous perils. Directed by David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley and Me”), the adaptation stars Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson as fictionalized versions of the real Al, Greg, and Sandy in a comedic travelogue.

But why birds? Like most devotees, Komito, Levantin, and Miller all started as boys and quickly became passionate about it. Carol Sheehan, whose new book, The Birding Life, shares the aesthetic and emotional richness of birding, calls this the “classic conversion experience,” one described by naturalist icons such as John James Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson, and David Allen Sibley: “For all of them it started in childhood and was connected with a broader involvement in the whole of nature.” As she notes, “Birds are God's nervous system. Watching for birds is a way of gaining information on the state of the natural world.” But it also allows its aficionados to gain purchase on the state of their own lives.

In many books — Kenn Kaufmann’s Kingbird Highway or William FiennesThe Snow Geese, for example — the pursuit of birds becomes an allegorical personal journey. Fiennes, after a serious illness, recovers his interest in life while following the migration of snow geese, while the teenage Kaufmann’s road trip is, in the opinion of Sheehan, “an American coming-of-age classic almost on the order of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye.” Obmascik’s book communicates the joys of birding through the importance of the Big Year in the lives of his three heroes: the older Levantin’s refusal to ease into retirement, the aimless Miller’s desire to prove his worth, the prickly Komito’s love for the battle. The film plays up this human angle, bringing out not just the sporting narrative that drove the biggest of the Big Years, but also its sense of emotional personal adventure — what it means to be wholly ensnared by the sublime beauty of the natural world.