It is, perhaps, too unkind to call "The Big Year" the perfect film to screen on a trans-oceanic plane flight whose compliment of passengers is made up solely of AARP Members. But we can think of no words of praise less slight and no words of condemnation more heated, so there it is. Inspired roughly by Mark Obmascik's non-fiction book of the same name, three fictional characters are our guides through the biggest event in American birdwatching, the annual competition to see the most North American birds in a year.
A nice interest -- and one compounded by the fact that you don't even need to have photographic proof -- or, if you can cite the sound call precisely, even see the bird. Owen Wilson is a go-getter contractor who holds the record; Steve Martin is a man who has to put aside his CEO status and marriage to pursue his dream; Jack Black is a divorced engineer who has to overcome lack of funds and the disapproval of his gruff dad. Director David Frankel -- who gave us the fizzy "The Devil Wears Prada" and the fuzzy "Marley and Me" -- doesn't try to push this big, fat, slowball of middlebrow entertainment out to the edges, where it might make it over the fence either as satire or as low-and-slow drama, but instead puts it right back over the middle of the mound to limp to death in a catcher's mitt.
Frankel has an embarrassment of riches here -- supporting-part bench strength from Jo Beth Williams, Dianne Wiest, Rosamund Pike, Rashida Jones and Angelica Huston -- and that's just the ladies. Also on board are Brian Dennehy, Jim Parsons, Barry Shabaka Henley, Joel McHale, Kevin Pollak, Anthony Anderson and Tim Blake Nelson. He most assuredly has a cast -- and a beautiful canvas in the wide open spaces of America, but chooses to shoot it tight and flat and squashed as a postcard, even if shot in 2.35:1. "The Big Year" will, we're sure, become a big film for families trapped indoors on holidays who don't hate each other enough to drink but who don't like each other enough to talk.
The leads are who they were hired to be. Wilson could have been pushed into something better -- his affable contractor's can-do attitude and plate-spinning skills keep him on track for the record again even as he blows up his life. (Pike is game but wasted here, as a glamorous version of the put-upon Mrs. in a CBS sitcom). Martin's wise and glowing corporate patriarch is whiffle-ball level wavering weakness, sliding off the screen before our very eyes, only warming up when he tries and bond to Black. Meanwhile, Black's struggles with his dad Brian Dennehy repair and reconcile just as surely as the (nerdy) prodigal son is welcomed home in scripture, and with worse writing. Screenwriter Howard Franklin has previously given us such squirrely, scrappy films as "Quick Change" and "The Man Who Knew Too Little" -- keystones in any serious appreciation of Bill Murray -- so he certainly could have looked at this material askew instead of straight-on, or put a few smaller moments into the broad comedy and bland emoting, or tapped into the nutty trainspotting quirks of these driven hobbyists.
"The Big Year" could have used a little more obsession and lunacy itself; it's a tired travelogue through physical and emotional terrain we've all seen before. At one point Jo Beth Williams says of a ski race between Martin and his son, "They're men, dear; if they don't compete, they die." You could build a smart, sharp comedy out of that, even in the world of birdwatching, and stick the blade in deep. Instead, we get scenes of Wilson fighting self-doubt and then scenes of a stuck-up reluctant birder fighting seagulls because her scarf is soaked with fish guts. The birding competition in "The Big Year" may turn continents and species and the wonders of nature and science and exploration into a slight and trivial contest, but now that slight and trivial contest is transformed, as if by the very absence of magic, into a slight and trivial movie that wastes its entire setting, its three stars, its huge supporting cast and every possibility in the name of agreeable mediocrity. [C-]