With its near-total absence of humor, birding comedy "The Big Year" invites its audience to amuse itself with the names of avian species: hoary redpoll, arctic loon, pink-footed goose and olive-backed pipit, to name but a few. If the mere mention of the blue-footed booby sends you into paroxysms, "The Big Year" is the film for you.
For the rest of us, this story of bird-spotters racing to tally up the greatest number of species in a calendar year (an informal, bragging-rights competition known as a "big year") turns out to be an unfortunate non-starter. Given its cross-country travel, competition theme and all-star cast (Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Rashida Jones, Jim Parsons, Anjelica Huston, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, and so on...), one might well call it "It's a Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah World."
Directed by David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") and scripted by frequent Bill Murray collaborator Howard Franklin ("Quick Change") from Mark Obmascik's nonfiction bestseller, "The Big Year" proceeds from a promising premise that focuses on three birders with something to prove to themselves by doing a big year. Wilson's reigning champion Kenny Bostick fears losing his title, so he sets out into the birding community to keep his eye on his prize. Martin's "rich executive" Stu Preissler wants to pursue the dream he's been putting off while running a corporate empire. As for Black's Brad Harris, he could stand to be a success at anything at long last, so it may as well involve his love of birding.
"The Big Year" does several things right, saving it from being a dismal washout. For starters, Franklin educates the audience about birding phenomena, like the boon of a "spring fallout" that brings a rush of rare species where enthusiasts can find them. "The Big Year" also understands the obsessive personality, which can turn a hobby into a homewrecker; Wilson's character has lost at least one wife to birding, and he appears ready to repeat history with current wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike). And then there's the exploration of unlikely friendships -- between, say, corporate "winner" Stu and ostensible "loser" Brad -- built on like-minded personalities.
So "The Big Year" has heart, and that's something. Perhaps that soft spot also keeps "The Big Year" conventional, the lack of cynicism precluding wicked humor, but there's a place for this kind of kinder, gentler comedy. The message of choosing the right priorities proves more palatable in this film's hobbyist context than it has been for years (the world doesn't need another lousy family comedy about a workaholic dad learning to come home to his family).
That said, who wants to see Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson take turns whiffing every time they get up to bat? When Martin starts boogie-ing like a "wild and crazy guy," it's a colossal relief for 10 seconds, but also a sure sign of the film's total comic desperation.