“The Big Year” showcases birding and an increasingly docile Jack Black

By Danny Marchant

Three guys watching birds doesn’t sound like the stuff of movie magic. Yet “The Big Year,” which opened this past weekend, turns bird watching into an entertaining 90 minutes. Actually, the film’s creators would be quick to point out that “birding” is the preferred term, not “bird watching.” The film’s earnestness is palpable as it hops from location to location in search of rare birds. The three main characters climb up mountains, cross rivers and anger their wives all in the name of birding.

The title refers to the birding challenge of seeing and recording as many species of North American birds as possible in a single year. In the film, Owen Wilson plays the unbearable “big year” record-holder Kenny Bostick. Jack Black and Steve Martin play his plucky challengers, Brad Harris and Stu Preissler. Brad is out to prove to his father (played by Brian Dennehy) that he can accomplish something. As the movie’s narrator, Black plays a more subdued version of his usual bumbling klutz. Stu has wanted to try a “big year” for years, but has always been bound to his business. This simple triumvirate provides ample material for plenty of buddy comedy fun.

The only notable weak point in the trio is Wilson. He’s funny, but his portrayal of the annoying Bostick works almost too convincingly. The birding community of North America dreads the sight of him, and so does the audience. A running gag is the exasperated utterance of “Bostick” every time he shows up, which draws more attention to him than is worthwhile. It becomes difficult to enjoy despising his character, and you will more than likely end up simply despising him.

With actors like Martin, Black and Wilson, one might expect an over-the-top farce about the lengths these losers would go just to win some silly bird-watching competition. But that is far from the tone of the film. Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”) takes no risks and crosses no lines, but to his credit he never takes the easy route of making fun of his characters or their hobby, either. Birding isn’t depicted as a strange, fringe activity: Stu is a retired CEO; Bostick is respected contractor; even Brad has a steady job. These are mainstream characters enjoying a mainstream pastime.

Frankel imbues the whole movie with that sincerity. When the focus isn’t on the interactions of the characters, it shifts to the gorgeous nature photography that pervades the film. This is the chummiest episode of “Planet Earth” you have ever seen. It’s hard to watch “The Big Year” and not want to go outside and look for a pink-footed goose.

The only other minor shortcoming is the movie’s first act. The narrative starts like a rocket, and the characters are off on their quest before we’ve learned anything about them. But after 20 minutes or so, “The Big Year” hits its stride. The film is an enjoyable 90 minutes that will disarm you with its sweetness and sincerity. “The Big Year” is nothing special. It won’t change the comedy landscape. But it will leave you smiling and entertained. Recommended for families or people who found “School of Rock” too crass.

Danny Marchant can be reached at [email protected]