You want “The Big Year” to succeed because it’s so out of step with movie comedy, circa 2011. It’s mild, good-natured, and something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to see with your parents.
In other words, this film will have a tough time catching on.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to champion “A Big Year,” because the oomph just isn’t there.
The film is based on a real phenomenon, an informal competition amongst avian fanatics to spot as many different species of birds as possible within a single calendar year in North America. The competition works according to the honor system, and serious birders travel all year to find the rarest varieties.
In the movie’s world, the cock of the walk is the legendary Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the world record holder. Surely no one will beat Bostick’s mark of 737 birds — not even Bostick.
But he’s going for it again this year, much to the despair of his new wife (Rosamund Pike). Meanwhile, Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) is a CEO who intends to spend his first year of retirement in pursuit of the title.
And then there’s Brad Harris (Jack Black), a computer guy who lives with his parents (Brian Dennehy and Dianne Wiest) and lacks the bankroll the other competitors have. But he’s blessed with a golden ear for birdcalls.
So we follow the male bonding of Stu and Brad as they trail after the devious Bostick, who always seems one step ahead of the flock. Less compelling than the crazy bird-seeking scenes are the character bits that fill in each man’s story: marriages, jobs — all this stuff feels invented by a screenwriter to supply character motivation.
This stilted feeling isn’t helped by adding Brad’s narration, which mostly tells us what we’ve already seen for ourselves, when it isn’t telling us how we’re supposed to feel about all this.
Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) doesn’t get anything especially new from the trio of funny actors, with Steve Martin looking especially out of sorts. The supporting cast is weirdly crammed with recognizable talents — Anjelica Huston, Rashida Jones, Anthony Anderson, Tim Blake Nelson — who all have little to do.
There’s a decent running joke about how the fellows wear their bright clothing like the plumage of male birds, driven by their unexamined need to compete. A real movie might be made out of that need-and however painless “The Big Year” might be, it never feels like a real movie.
“The Big Year” (2½ stars)
Three fanatic birders compete to spot the most varieties of birds in a single calendar year. You want this good-natured comedy to succeed, but it just doesn’t have quite enough oomph, and even Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson aren’t used to good effect.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Mall, Galaxy Monroe, Marsyville, Meridian, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.