By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
It’s a shame not to be able to enthusiastically praise what is perhaps the first bird-watching movie ever made. Lord knows, bird enthusiasts have been waiting quite a while for a flick aimed at their demographic.
But while The Big Year isn’t for the birds, it’s about the birds to a fault.
Relaxed and mellow — also to a fault — this is a comedy that takes its time, but doesn’t fill ours aggressively enough.
Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black play eccentric bird watchers (is there any other kind?) trying to win the prestigious North American competition and be named “The Best Bird Watcher in the World.”
Oh, wait. I mean birding, not “bird watching.” After all, all that “watching” stuff sounds so passive.
Martin is Stu, a wealthy, retired businessman who ignores the advice of everyone around him and decides to take a year so that he can pursue what they see as his cockeyed obsession.
Black is Brad, our narrator — a divorced, down-in-the-dumps, thirtysomething computer programmer crisscrossing the country without the support, financial or otherwise, of one of the skeptical parents he still lives with. (Mom’s in his corner, Dad’s in his face.)
Stu and Brad team up on their continent-spanning quest to try to unseat Kenny, the record-holding (737 birds) defending champion played by Wilson, who sees himself as one of the world’s few true champions and is willing, first of all, to drop everything on the home front and take off for foreign shores at the drop of a bird and, second, to be the kind of ruthless tactician who does whatever it takes to his competitors to hold onto his top ranking.
Everything, that is, but cheat on the number of reported sightings. Yep, the honor system, amazingly, still governs the competition.
The large cast also features lots of comedy talents who fly by to lend support, including Jim Parsons, Anjelica Huston, Rashida Jones, JoBeth Williams, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Anderson, Rosamund Pike, John Cleese, Joel McHale, Kevin Pollak, Tim Blake Nelson, and Corbin Bernsen.
(Of course, the price a movie pays for a cast that vast is that no one gets enough to do.)
The scattered screenplay by Howard Franklin was inspired by the 2004 nonfiction book, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik about the 1998 edition of the annual competition to spot the most bird species in North America over the course of twelve months.
The director, David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me), moving from dresses and dogs to birds, doesn’t exactly wing it. Instead, his overly controlled comedy doesn’t allow any of the gifted comedians on board to let loose: this movie is fronted by three severely underemployed funny guys.
Consequently, the film has far too little funny (ha-ha) inside that nest full of funny (peculiar).
But the film’s biggest problem is that it is so focused on the details of birding that it nearly disenfranchises audience members who are not in the Audubon Society.
The film seems to want to fly over a wide audience, with birding serving as a metaphor for themes such as the value of pursuing one’s passion, however obsessive it becomes.
And the script appears at first interested in exploring the intensely competitive nature of our species, regardless of the magnitude of the enterprise or the size of the stakes.
But although our sense of wonder at the natural world and the variety of birds is engaged, we never get to know any of the main characters well enough to understand what draws them in so fiercely, nor do we come to believe the level of obsession under the microscope: the film should certainly have accomplished at least that.
So we’ll call a fowl on 2 stars out of 4 for the avian romp, The Big Year. It’s not that it never gets off the ground, it’s just that it never gets off its own high-flying obsession.