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Actor and comedian Steve Martin is no stranger to heartwarming films on family with a touch of the funny: His “Parenthood,” “Father of the Bride” and “Cheaper by the Dozen” are all worthwhile looks at the fate and foibles of being a father.

And while his newest film, “The Big Year,” isn’t quite on the same level as those other offerings, the oddly titled movie on an even odder subject – “birding” – nonetheless delivers some thought-provoking, encouraging and even convicting messages on marriage and family.

Joining Martin in the lead roles of “The Big Year” are wild child comedian Jack Black and “Wedding Crasher” Owen Wilson.

At first it might seem strange to think of Black and Wilson in a PG-rated, positive-message movie, until you realize the comedians have also – in addition to some fairly raunchy garbage – been the stars of such family fare as “Kung Fu Panda,” “Ice Age,” “Cars” and “Night at the Museum.”

And when the comic trio – along with a deep cast of recognizable names like John Cleese, Brian Dennehy, Anjelica Huston and Dianne Wiest – take on a touching story of how much a man will give up to chase a dream, and how the women in his life either will or won’t support him, the resulting themes are sincere and insightful.

In fact, watching the three men of “The Big Year” making life decisions and living with the consequences is almost as impactful as watching the five fathers in this fall’s Christian cinematic sermon, “Courageous.”

Almost.

 

“The Big Year” follows three bird enthusiasts who each set out to witness in person as many species of birds in North America as possible in a single year, a competitive venture known in “birding” as having a “big year.” To accomplish the feat, the men must leave behind jobs and families to travel the country tallying species of birds – both common and rare – by the hundreds.

Martin plays a successful, wealthy businessman at the end of his career who has always dreamed of having a “big year” and is now, finally, going to go for it.

Black plays a divorced, lowly cubicle worker living in his parents’ home, a naturally talented “birder” who believes he can be the best, if only his dad would get off his case about chasing his real passion.

Wilson plays the world’s record holder in “birding,” a man obsessed with holding the title who has sacrificed two marriages on the altar of his sport and is endangering his third.

An important side note in the film is the way the women in these men’s lives treat their hobby … sport … obsession … whatever it is.

Wilson’s wife tolerates his fanaticism but is crying out for him to let it go and stay home; Black is trying to woo a gal who shares his “birding” passion; Martin’s wife is a paragon of wise, supportive (and dare I say, biblical) wifehood:

“Carpe annum,” she encourages him. He’s worked his whole life, always putting family first, and now it’s time for him to take a year, a whole year, to chase his dream. She’ll miss him, but she insists he doesn’t put it off even one more day.

“That’s it?” he asks. “Complete support? You’re not going to try to stop me?”

“You’ve been dreaming of this since you were a little boy,” she answers. “I’m not going to stand in the way of your greatest passion.”

He smiles at her meaningfully: “Not my greatest passion.”

Despite casting comics in so many roles, the movie isn’t nearly as funny as I expected. None of the actors were really asked to stretch much, and there’s no Oscar material here. But “The Big Year” does pull on some big heart strings and is all at once delightfully quirky and charming.

In the end, “The Big Year” is a story about just how far a man will go, and what sacrifices he will make, to chase … whatever it is men chase.

“This is what I’m good at,” one of the men insists. “This is what I’ll be remembered for.”

Really? And how will your wife and children remember you?

“This is like my calling,” one “birder” tries to explain.

“I let other things get in the way,” grieves yet another.

No simple morality play, the film allows the audience to chew a bit on the men’s stories without wrapping it up with a neat bow. Notably, “The Big Year” doesn’t take the ’90s-man, feminist mantra that boys need to stop being boys, that men need to stop being men and be nannies instead.

“If men stop competing,” the wise wife declares, “they die.”

But it does challenge and exhort men to look at their priorities.

One of the film’s final lines says it best, when the final numbers come in and the best “birder” is reveald: “He got more birds, but we got more everything. Only he knows the price he paid to be the greatest.”

That’s the kind of line that sticks with you, the kind of writing that “Courageous” was sorely lacking and makes “The Big Year” one of the most suprisingly good movies I’ve seen this year.

Content advisory:

  • “The Big Year” contains about a dozen minor obscenities and profanities.

 

  • The film’s violent content is mild, limited to some hunters shooting birds, a bit of slapstick mishap, a car crash and some fish being chopped up (played for a bit of intentional “gross” effect).

 

  • The film also has very little sexual content, but there is some cleavage, some characters who walk around in a towel and the discussion of a wife theoretically having an affair. In one scene a woman is shown injecting her upper bare buttock with fertility hormones and she comments about it. In another scene a married couple make out passionately on a bed, but are interrupted before they disrobe or get too serious.

 

  • The film’s only religious or occult content is somewhat incidental: a couple characters who make the hard rock hand sign, an event joked about as an “act of God,” music singing “this little light of mine” and another song singing something about “St. Peter.”

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