You’d have to really love birding as much as the guys here do to enjoy the strained buddy comedy “The Big Year” to its fullest potential.
Except for some lovely scenery and a few lively interactions between the three stars — Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black — “The Big Year” feels like the long, cross-country schlep that it is. And in the pursuit of what? The title of spotting the most bird species in North America over the course of a calendar year, something extremely specific that will probably only interest a few people in the audience.
Yes, of course, the journey is the destination and whatnot. And The Big Year competition itself is merely a device, an allegory for the desire these three men have to prove their worth at this particular moment in their lives. If that weren’t obvious to us already, the voiceover-heavy script spells out everything these people are thinking or regretting or learning from this magical experience.
David Frankel’s film, based on the non-fiction book by Mark Obmascik, begins in lively fashion in introducing its characters and establishing its premise, as you might expect from the director of “The Devil Wears Prada.” (Frankel also previously directed Wilson in “Marley & Me.”) But it quickly grows repetitive as Martin (as retiring corporate CEO Stu Preissler), Wilson (as the cutthroat reigning champ, Kenny Bostick) and Black (as divorced, cubicle-dwelling newbie Brad Harris) go to extremes chase each other around and race against the clock.
It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad bird.
Along the way, Stu and Brad form an easy friendship, despite coming from opposite ends of the success spectrum. Watching these two extremely different comic actors team up and play off each other provides one of the few natural joys in a film that too often relies on heartwarming schmaltz.
Sharing screen time with the various geese and eagles and owls is a ridiculously strong cast of supporting actors, most of whom don’t get enough to do. They include Brian Dennehy, Dianne Weist, Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak; even the brief narration at the start, explaining the history of The Big Year, comes from John Cleese.
JoBeth Williams enjoys a few deadpan zingers as Stu’s inordinately understanding wife, while Rosamund Pike provides some substance to what could have been a naggy, one-note role as Kenny’s wife, who longs to have a baby and is increasingly frustrated with his absence and obsession. Anjelica Huston, meanwhile, has some amusing moments as a no-nonsense birding tour guide in Oregon (just the sight of her in braided pigtails, suspenders and a plaid shirt is good for an initial laugh).
Ultimately, though, the who-cares? factor in watching men chase birds is just too insurmountable. “The Big Year” flaps its wings awfully hard but never truly takes flight.