It would be nice to say that The Big Year is the best comedy ever made about competitive bird watching — excuse me, I mean birding. (Birders get very sensitive about terminology.) It would be nasty and convenient to say that it’s the worst comedy ever made about birding. The truth, however, is that it’s an amiably formulaic, ever-so-slightly original comedy that isn’t, in the end, very good. Yet the more I sat through it, the more it won me over in its very benign high-concept way. It’s like City Slickers remade for the Discovery Channel.
The movie, loosely based on a true story, is about three outwardly mild-mannered men, all of whom leave their daily lives behind to engage in what is known, in birding, as a ”Big Year” — an entire calendar year of hopping around North America, all to see who can spot the most species. Owen Wilson plays the reigning world champion, with a record 732 sightings. He’s so intent on defending, and outdoing, his record that he abandons his wife (Rosamund Pike) even as she’s in the midst of trying, with the aid of hormone treatments, to have a baby with him. Steve Martin is the wealthy CEO who pursues his Big Year to avoid the threatening prospect of retirement, and Jack Black is a 36-year-old divorced loser-slacker who launches his Big Year, bankrolled by his mom (Dianne Wiest), as part of a grand refusal to grow up.
The characters are just as two-dimensional as they sound, but damned if Wilson, Martin, and Black don’t make those dimensions pop. Since birding operates on the honor system, there’s no real mischief or chicanery to draw you into The Big Year. It’s just a zig-zaggy light comedy about three friendly rivals hopping planes to the outer islands of Alaska, or rushing toward a storm center to watch birds drop out of the sky. At certain points, you may think: What’s next, a comedy about stamp collecting? Obsessing over birds can sound silly, yet what I found oddly touching about The Big Year is that it celebrates the idea that no obsession, when you think about, is really very rational. B?