Audiences lining up to see the new bird-watching comedy ‘The Big Year’ probably couldn’t tell a pink footed goose from a stifftail duck. The niche hobby of bird watching is far less popular than most leisure pursuits.
And when they leave the theater they won’t know much more about the wonderful world of birds.
‘The Big Year’ illustrates the pitfalls of being a “birder” – the sudden travel, the pricey hotel fees and the risk of alienating the ones you love. But where’s the joy, the sense that we’re watching nature’s handiwork up close and personal?
We’re left with a trio of comic actors rummaging for narrative scraps, let alone enough laugh lines to justify their respective paychecks.
‘Year’ casts Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black as three very different men united in their love of birding. Ken Bostick (Wilson) is the reigning Big Year champion, meaning he personally spotted 732 bird species over a 12-month span. Now, he wants to break his own record, even if it means spending weeks away from his frustrated wife (the luminous Rosamund Pike).
Stu Preissler (Martin) has everything a man could want – a loving wife (Jobeth Williams), beautiful children and a thriving business. But he’s willing to set them all aside to complete his own Big Year.
And then there’s Brad Harris (Black), an IT shlub who listens to bird calls on his iPod at work. He thinks winning the Big Year competition will prove his self worth, much to the dismay of his grumpy dad (Brian Dennehy).
The three repeatedly bump into each other on their mad dash to spot as many bird species as possible, a competition ruled by the honor system. That concept itself sets ‘The Big Year’ apart from other male-bonding comedies. But there’s little about ‘Year’ that bothers to peer beyond the surface.
Director David Frankel, who had far better success with the animal-centric ‘Marley & Me,’ fails to capture the warmth and vitality of birding. And the script can’t decide if Ken is a cad or a clown, robbing the film of a potentially intriguing villain. Ken’s wife desperately wants a baby, but Ken seems more interested in migration patterns than painting the nursery. Yet Ken refuses to cheat in order to retain his title.
Wilson proves a poor choice for a role crying out for clarity. He’s in slacker mode, again, a scruffy chap you can’t stay mad at for long.
Black, in comparison, can bring an outsider’s point of view to an iconoclast like Brad, someone who thrives on the poetry of a bird in flight. But his character remains just out of focus, particularly when he’s trying to woo a fellow birder (Rashida Jones).
‘Year’ squanders not just its lead but a gaggle of ripe supporting players. Blink and you’ll miss Jones, Steven Weber, Kevin Pollack and ‘Community’s’ Joel McHale.
‘The Big Year’ lacks purpose as well as laughs. It’s far too bland to be a straight character study, and the film’s talents aren’t tapped for any comic set pieces of consequence. Couldn’t Martin have attempted one signature pratfall to break up the monotony?
Based on Mark Obmascik’s 2004 nonfiction book ‘The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession,’ this ‘Year’ ends on a note that essentially tells us birding is, well, for the birds if it means losing the ones you love.
Audiences should walk out of ‘The Big Year’ eager to scour their neighborhoods for bird species they never gave a second thought to before. Instead, they’ll likely wonder what the fuss is all about.