“The Big Year” is a comedy about competitive bird-watching. It stars three of the biggest stars from two generations of screen comedy — Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. So there’s little time for waxing poetic about our feathered friends, no lingering shots of the lovely, elusive and rare spotted woodpecker or pink-footed goose these men pursue to the ends of the continent.
The movie’s a lot like the pursuit itself — manic birders, pressed for time, jetting and driving and boating hither and yon, trying to pile up the most species sightings in a given year, not really appreciating the winged wonders in their midst.
Considering this cast, it’s not particularly wacky, either. That’s in keeping with the source material, reporter Mark Obmascik’s dry and perhaps lightly amusing book about three obsessed and very different birders piling up the numbers in the biggest birding year ever.
What this film from the director of “The Devil Wears Prada” does manage is a gentle amiability, much like this “honor system” contest it depicts. These are people who can’t articulate what they love, they just know they love it. And their ranks are a quirky, disparate lot.
Take Brad (Jack Black). He’s an overweight computer code-cruncher for a nuclear power plant who spends all his spare time and all his cash — and then some — birding.
“Sooner or later, you’re going to have to do something with your life,” his dad (Brian Dennehy) grouses.
“I just want to do something big, to make my mark,” he tells him, as he’s hitting the parents (Diane Wiest plays his mom) up for more cash. He’s going for a big year, and hanging on to a full time job while doing it.
Then there’s Stu (Steve Martin). He’s a company president ready to retire just so he can leave behind his wife (Jobeth Williams) and their stunning Aspen estate to spend a year chasing birds. His underlings (Kevin Pollack, Joel McHale) don’t want him to leave in the middle of a big deal, but Stu is determined.
Is he as determined as Kenny (Owen Wilson)? He’s a wealthy contractor who holds the current “big year” record. He knows all the tricks, is something of a swaggering, insufferable rock star in birder circles. And he’s so anxious to hang onto his record that he plans to travel anywhere, anytime, to better that record, o matter how much his wife (Rosamund Pike) wants a baby.
Director David Frankel is blessed with this cast and a subject that seems ripe for mockery, or at least gentle lampooning.
But he never lands big laughs, just grins and giggles.
Kenny is conniving and the moment he finds out others are going for a big year, he gets in their heads. As they dash from Texas to Alaska, Minnesota to Key West, the guys raise their scores, empty their bank accounts and question what they’re doing.
Anjelica Huston amusingly plays the flinty bird boat trip operator who takes her name from a rare bird — Annie Auklet. But she, like Tim Blake Nelson, as a fellow birder, and Anthony Anderson (as Brad’s boss) was hired and given too little to do.
I like the way the Beatles’”Blackbird” is woven into the score, though that little ditty seems to set the tone here. There’s no urgency, not enough energy to lift “The Big Year” above a fairly dry account of an odd subculture in our midst. It’s OK to say “Golf is just a hobby,” while birding “is a calling.” But this is a movie. You need to show why.
MPAA Rating:PG, for language and some sensuality
Cast: Steve Martin (Stu Preissler), Jack Black (Brad Harris) and Owen Wilson (Kenny Bostick).
Credits: Directed by David Frankel, written by Howard Franklin, a Fox 2000 release.
Running time: 1:39