A “big year” in bird-watching circles — call them “birders,” please — is an unofficial annual competition in which amateur ornithophiles (or, perhaps, ornithomaniacs) compete to see the biggest number of separate species in a particular region over the course of one year. There’s no prize and not much glory, but it’s a quest that sends the most dedicated to travel widely for 12 months in order to claim victory.
The new comedy “The Big Year” is equally relentless in its pursuit, schlepping its cast from coast to coast and out to the furthest reaches of Alaska, and while it never quite captures greatness in its binoculars, the result is a pleasant-enough voyage.
We meet and follow a trio of birders who couldn’t be more different: Returning champ Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) can’t stop himself from defending his crown, even if it interferes with the home-renovation and egg-fertilization projects he winds up leaving solely in the hands of his wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike); Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a retired CEO who’s thrilled to leave the rat race behind in pursuit of birding glory; and Brad Harris (Jack Black), a 30-something divorcé still living with his parents, who cobbles together his meager resources in the hopes that pulling off a Big Year will finally allow him to amount to something.
So basically, this is a sports movie, with the search for snowy owls and pink-footed geese taking the place of boxing or basketball or whatever. The characters will show their true colors by the way they compete, and their personal relationships will flourish or wither, depending on their ability to compartmentalize their obsessions.
Pike, one of my favorite rising young actresses, gets more mileage than you might imagine out of the neglected wife role — it helps that screenwriter Howard Franklin (“Quick Change”) and director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) resist making her into a two-dimensional shrew. (Or, in bird terms, a shrike.)
Given the film’s gentle, laconic nature, it feels like the filmmakers were shooting for something along the lines of the British classic Ealing Studios comedies of the 1950s, but despite the talented cast — which also includes Angelica Huston, Dianne Weist, Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Joel McHale, and Kevin Pollak — “The Big Year” never feels like it hits its own comic potential. (As a friend of mine used to say about “The Tracey Ullmann Show,” it’s more smile-inducing than laugh-generating.)
But even if “The Big Year” doesn’t entirely jell, it’s a movie that’s too charming to dislike. Black, Martin, and Wilson have all made some painful big-screen choices of late (oy with the “Gulliver’s Travels” and “The Pink Panther 2” and “Drillbit Taylor” already) but they all drop the shtick for once and actually play characters. Yes, Black can’t resist the temptation to fall down a time or two, but they never condescend to their characters’ all-consuming passion for a pastime that many would find ludicrous.
You don’t have to be a birder yourself to fall for “The Big Year.” Whether you’ve memorized the names of every Red Sox relief pitcher or read every issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” or collected every piece of radioactive Fiestaware, you’ll relate to the monomania on display here.