‘The Big Year’ features bird watchers

I VIEWED "The Big Year" and for the first time in my life left a movie thinking: needs more bird-watching.

Weird, since it's putatively ABOUT competitive bird-watching, loosely based on a nonfiction book about three actual people who devoted a year of their lives to an obsessive, continental bird-spotting contest.

There is a rich premise here for a distinctive comedy about a singular subculture - think of how "Best in Show," for example, looked for laughs by delving into the details of dog-show culture.

But you can tell that somebody, probably at the studio, wasn't entirely comfortable with the bird-watching concept - what attracted them to the script ended up being what scared them about it (the TV ads don't mention birds), a common affliction in Hollywood.

So what we get is another watered-down mainstream comedy with a self-improvement message and standard relationship dramas.

Too bad. Movies used to do this kind of thing well. I kept thinking how much better "The Big Year" might have been as an Ealing Studios title from the 1950s, with Alec Guinness or Terry Thomas getting laughs from the quirks and compulsions of bird-loving characters.

The Hollywood version, alas, has been homogenized, turned into a conventional follow-your-dreams narrative that commences when some middle-aged guy wonders: How many people go through life without ever reaching for the brass ring?

I don't know, but I think many of them produce movies in Hollywood.

And it's a shame, because there is no reason that a bird-watching movie with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black shouldn't have worked.

Martin, the banjo-playing, art-collecting eccentric, seems particularly well-suited to the role. In "Big Year," he's flattened out as a vaguely plutocratic money guy who wants to retire early to pursue what bird-watchers refer to as a Big Year - counting as many individual species as possible, in hopes of perhaps setting a record (somewhere north of 1,000).

His competitors include a chubby computer programmer (Jack Black) and a contractor (Owen Wilson), who abandons his business and pregnancy-seeking wife (Rosamund Pike) to keep these upstarts from breaking his record.

The movie's halfway interesting when it shows the men flying to Alaska to chase rare species, or heading into a hurricane to see Gulf birds blown ashore, but mediocre when it falls back on stock story lines - biological clocks, nerd romance, a dad (Brian Dennehy) who's suspicious of his son's sissy science habit, etc.

For the birds?

If only.

The Big Year

Directed by David Frankel. With JoBeth Williams, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin, Dianne Wiest, Jack Black, Rosamund Pike, Kevin Pollak, Rashida Jones, Owen Wilson. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hours, 40 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for language and some sensuality).