Filming took place from May to July 2010. The film was released on October 14, 2011, in the United States and was a box office bomb, grossing only $7.4 million against its $41 million budget.
The film follows three seasoned birders who each set out to achieve a Big Year. They are Brad Harris (Jack Black), a 36-year-old computer programmer based in Baltimore; Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), founder and CEO of a New York company bearing his name; and a roofing contractor named Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), who holds the current Big Year record of 732 birds.
Bostick is obsessively possessive of his record, but his third wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike) is concerned; this was supposed to be the year they focused on conceiving a child. She also believes that Bostick's birding obsession is what destroyed his previous marriage.
Brad is a skilled birder who can identify nearly any species solely by sound. He hates his job maintaining the operational software of a nuclear power plant in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Living with his parents after a failed marriage, an aborted career at Dell, and dropping out of grad school, he is a "typical Jack Black underachiever". He hopes that doing a Big Year will give him a sense of purpose and possibly even make his father proud of him.
Stu is the founder and CEO of an enormous Manhattan-based chemical conglomerate which he built from the ground up, starting in his garage. After decades of corporate success, he is ready to retire to Colorado with his architect wife. Fear of an empty schedule led him to come back from a previous retirement, but now he wants to leave his company in the hands of his two lieutenants (Kevin Pollak and Joel McHale). The company is in the middle of complicated negotiations to merge with a competitor, so his two anointed successors keep calling him back to New York for important meetings; to some extent he is a prisoner of his own success. A Big Year has been his lifelong dream and he's pursuing it with the full support of his wife.
The movie portrays various incidents that take place while the trio compete with each other to achieve the world record of sighting the highest number of birds during the Big Year event.
All three birders are coming to understand the cost of their birding obsessions. The Big Year will result in Brad developing a new bond with his parents, and makes Stu's bond with his family even better. On the other hand, Bostick's third marriage will also be on its way to break.
Bostick races home from yet another birding trip to keep an important appointment with his wife at a fertility clinic. He is literally at the front door of the clinic when he receives a report of a sighting of a snowy owl, his most coveted and elusive bird. Despite the fact that his wife is waiting inside to have her eggs harvested, fertilized and implanted after undergoing months of hormone injections, he speeds back to the airport and phones in an obviously made-up excuse for his absence. His wife returns alone to their big house, and screams in frustration inside the empty nursery. When Bostick finally returns home after the fruitless search for the snowy owl, she tells him she still loves him but can't be his wife anymore.
As the year draws to a close, Stu enjoys his newborn grandson; Brad finds a new relationship with fellow birder Ellie who had just broken up with her boyfriend; and Bostick finally finds the snowy owl that eluded him for a long time, however his obsession of being the best birder in the world cost him his marriage.
At the end of the Big Year, Stu and Brad are very close friends. Stu is now happily retired and Brad is happy man with his new girlfriend Ellie who also has an interest in birding. Stu and Brad congratulate each other on "a very big year", after each sighting 700+ bird species that year.
The Big Year results are published and Stu phones Brad with the news. Bostick is first with 755, a new record; Brad comes in second; Stu is fourth. Brad opines that he got more birds, "but we got more everything," as he looks at Ellie, who has come for a weekend visit. Stu smiles, looking at his wife.
The film ends with Brad and Ellie cozily birding together on a rocky coastline, while Brad confesses that birding is no longer the biggest part of his life. Stu, contented in retirement, is hiking with his toddler grandson (already enamored by birds) in the Rockies. Bostick is on a birding adventure in China, alone and gazing wistfully at a happy couple walking with their newborn child.
Principal photography was done from May 3 to July 30, 2010 in Vancouver.
Jack Black's fall on Attu Island was unscripted.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. The Hollywood Reporter described it as a "genial, amusing and somewhat unfathomable" film; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called it a "gentle, light-hearted comedy" about "people trying to be the best, following their dreams and enjoying the wonder of birds". It holds a 40% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus stating: "Though made with care and affection for its characters, The Big Year plods along, rarely reaching any comedic heights." CinemaScore polls reported that the average grade moviegoers gave the film was a "B-minus" on an A+ to F scale.
The film was a box office failure, despite the established stars like Martin, Black and Wilson playing the leads. Based on a budget of $41 million, it took in just $7.4 million in ticket sales worldwide according to Box Office Mojo.