It may be set in the competitive world of birding where he who sees the most species of winged creatures in 365 days wins, but The Big Year really is a field guide to men.
Inspired by Mark Obmascik's nonfiction book, David Frankel's film observes the migratory patterns of three breeds of birders. Do they criss-cross the country from Alaska's Aleutians to Florida's Everglades because they feel trapped by their lives? Or because by observing avian life they better understand humans? Yes and maybe, suggests this gently eccentric film from Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me).
Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), America's top-ranked birder, is hooked on the thrill of the hunt and defines himself by his status as most successful birdman to the extent that he both physically and emotionally abandons his wife, Jessica (Rosamund Pike).
Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a tycoon on the brink of retirement, trades the combative adventure of business for the contemplative adventure of birding, fighting his mortality by taking on the younger Bostick. "They're men," says Edith (JoBeth Williams), Stu's supremely tolerant wife, with a shrug. "If they stop competing, they'll die."
Brad Harris (Jack Black), an office drone living with his parents after his divorce, simply wants to get out of his cage.
Although the frenemies fly, drive and boat to remote places in pursuit of woodcocks and eagles and boobys, the birds are only the pretext of the story about obsessives each trying to prove something to himself.
One wishes the birds were photographed with the care and love that documentarians brought to Winged Migration (or with the care that Frankel lights his stars.) But for one scene where Brad delivers an ode to the golden plover, an ordinary-looking bird with unique qualities, like Brad himself, and another of the breathtaking mating dance of bald eagles, talons linked as they spiral to earth, there's not much birdwatching to be had here.
But there is ample stargazing. Wilson is cagy fun as the ruthless birder and Martin droll as the executive. Black, whose character narrates the picture but is otherwise underwitten, has a nice scene with Brian Dennehy as his Dad and another with Dianne Wiest as Mom. Rashida Jones brings warmth and mockingbird humor to a small role as Black's crush.
With ambitions greater than comedy and results that fall short of character study, The Big Year is neither fish nor fowl.