The trailer for The Big Year is one of the most deceptive ever made, positing the film as a comedy about three guys who take a year from their lives to indulge in zany, bucket-list adventures. Never once does the trailer mention what the trio is actually doing: Competing in an annual contest to see who can spot the most rare birds.
Why does The Big Year’s trailer intentionally hide what the film is really about? Here’s why: Because bird-watching — or birding, as practitioners prefer to call it — makes for a stupefyingly boring movie. Inspired by Mark Obmascik’s nonfiction book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, the movie has a potentially intriguing subject: What sort of person would devote a year of his life flying around the country, trying to spot a wider variety of birds than anyone else, for the simple honor of having his name published in a birding magazine?
Wealthy executive Stu (Steve Martin), married contractor Kenny (Owen Wilson) and divorced schlub Brad (Jack Black) are three such men, willing to put their careers, marriages and lives on hold so they can drive, fly, sail and hike to the furthermost reaches of the United States in order to lay eyes on one more breed of bird to add to their tally.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley and Me) does his best to give the film an energetic pace, emphasizing the breakneck excursions and sometimes dangerous antics the trio embark on in order to be crowned birder of the year. But while the extremes these people will go to for such a peculiar hobby are fascinating, the movie is populated by shallow, underwritten characters. Never do we really believe that Stu, a powerful businessman about to become a grandfather, would really give up his company or miss the birth of his grandson in order to chase after a pink-footed goose.
Kenny, the current birding record-holder defending his title, ignores his beautiful wife, who is undergoing hormonal treatments so they can have a baby. And Brad, who still lives at home with his parents, doesn’t seem to be interested in anything in life other than birds — at least until the story gives him an unlikely love interest (Rashida Jones) who shares his ornithology obsession.
Despite constant attempts at humor via wordplay, pratfalls and the occasional semi-improvisation by Martin and Black, The Big Year is practically devoid of laughs — I don’t think I cracked a smile during the entire film — and things get even worse when Frankel gives in to his sentimental streak and melodrama crashes the picture’s third act. There’s a breathtaking shot in The Big Year of the mating ritual of bald eagles, a stunning sight to behold, and the movie does impart a sense of wonder about the natural world and sheer variety of birds that inhabit our continent. But the film is a complete dud as a comedy, making you wish Obmascik’s book had been turned into a documentary instead. Birders as obsessive as these must be fascinating people: Their Hollywood counterparts, sadly, are not.
Cast: Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Anjelica Huston, Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, JoBeth Williams.
Director: David Frankel.
Screenwriter: Howard Franklin. Inspired by the book by Mark Obmascik.
Producers: Karen Rosenfelt, Stuart Cornfeld, Curtis Hanson.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Oct. 14 at area theaters