I'm willing to concede that being a birder is a worthy pastime, but is birding good movie material? Maybe it is if you're making a documentary for Animal Planet. The new bromantic comedy "The Big Year," starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, didn't exactly change my mind, but every once in a while it captures a suitable-for-framing shot of an avian wonder. Assuming, alas, I haven't been duped by a CGI effect.
The human-based material is less wonderful. Martin's Stu, a wealthy businessman with an adoring wife (JoBeth Williams) and family and a palatial retreat in Vail, Colo., is primed to retire and pursue his lifelong dream. This turns out to be placing in the real-life Big Year competition, in which the winner spots the most species of birds in North America within one calendar year.
Jack Black's Brad is a computer code writer and layabout who wants to be the best at something – in this case, bird-watching. He, too, sets out on his Big Year, setting aside his weekends.
Both men have their sights set on Owen Wilson's unscrupulous Kenny, a successful contractor whose 732 bird sightings is the current world record. Kenny's wife (Rosamund Pike) has been undergoing fertility treatments and complains about his gallivanting, which apparently wrecked a previous marriage. He's determined to make this one work, but if it's a choice between helping out at home or holding on to his championship, you can guess what he goes for.
Even though none of these guys is ready to kick the bucket, "The Big Year" has an unmistakable affinity with "The Bucket List," another bromance that attempted the calisthenic feat of simultaneously tickling our funny bone, plucking our heartstrings, and draining our tear ducts. The problem is that director David Frankel and screenwriter Howard Franklin, working off a nonfiction book by Mark Obmascik, are experts at neither tickling, plucking, nor draining.
Birding, at least as practiced by the film's trio, is more than a hobby; it's a passion. But passion is what is AWOL from "The Big Year." The movie's low-key geniality is pleasant enough, but what's missing is the comedy, the nuttiness, of infatuation. When Henry Fonda as a herpetologist in "The Lady Eve" said "snakes are my life," we could laugh at his ardor while still, at the same time, admiring him for it. Despite a few obligatory speeches about the wonder of it all, the men in "The Big Year" are mostly into birding to win big. Birding here is about being the best that you can be at something, which means, in the film's touchy-feely parlance, finding out who you really are.
But what if who you really are is someone who wants nothing more than to top 732 bird sightings? In the case of Kenny at least, his redemption isn't all that convincing. When all is said and done, Hollywood always admires a winner.
One reason the real-life Big Year competition seems so phony is because it's so confusingly laid out. The point is made that bird sightings are tabulated on the honor system, which seems hard to believe. And despite the film's egalitarian trappings, it's likely that only the well-heeled, or the deep-in-debt, can afford the competition at all. And how did these guys, or at least Stu and Brad, develop their birding expertise in the first place? Brad has a "golden ear" that can identify the most esoteric birdcalls – not something one generally hones while spending quality time in a cubicle or on a couch.
Wilson and, especially, Black are doing their usual genial shtick – mugging for the camera, telegraphing their jokes. Martin tries to inject some soul into his role but, as is often the case when he is in subpar material, he would have been better off writing his own dialogue. He seems too smart for this film.
The large supporting cast for "The Big Year" includes Dianne Wiest, Anjelica Huston, and Brian Dennehy. What a waste that three of our finest actors are utilized as glorified bit players in such an instantly disposable comedy. Grade: C+ (Rated PG for language and some sensuality.)