Andy Bockelman: Good or bad, ‘Big Year’ is for the birds

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

“The Big Year”

2.5 out of 4 stars

101 minutes

Starring: Jack Black, Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Rashida Jones.

Spending a Saturday morning armed with a pair of binoculars and a notebook may not appeal to everyone, but for a select few, this is paradise. It’s hard to tap into that mindset, but “The Big Year” does its best to do just that.

Every year, bird enthusiasts across the country migrate from point to point to get a glimpse of North America’s favorite fowls. Some only do it as a hobby, but for those who are more serious about the activity of “birding,” there’s The Big Year, a quest to spot as many species of bird as possible within 365 days.

The reigning champ in the annual competition is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), a New Jersey contractor who stops at nothing when it comes to being No. 1. But, two men are prepared to overtake him this year: newly retired executive Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) and Brad Harris (Jack Black), whose only escape from his menial job and boring life is the possibility of being thought of as the best birder in the nation.

Once Jan. 1 comes up on the calendar the three of them jump into the fray, but putting their lives on hold for the next 12 months isn’t as easy as it should be.

Brad’s humdrum personality doesn’t seem like the best fit for Black, but the usually gregarious actor tones it down to play the most down to earth of the leading trio, facing a rapidly decreasing bank account and a father (Brian Dennehy) who mocks him constantly about his favorite activity. Martin is likewise pretty low key as the accomplished businessman who’s sensitive about the prospect of having his wings clipped in the corporate world while still wanting to spend more time with his family.

Wilson is easily the most comfortable as cocky Bostick, juggling his plan to stay on top with a wife (Rosamund Pike) who’s feeling neglected. But, for these three men, all the worries of the world start to melt away once they flock to every nook and cranny of the USA to see their feathered quarry, encountering the likes of Anjelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Parsons and more along the way.

Traveling from Alaska to Arizona to Maine to Montana viewing everything from finches to flamingos to warblers to woodpeckers, there’s precious little time to get a sense of who these men are who, let alone the actual men and women who inspired Mark Obmascik’s “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession.” The desire to spend thousands of dollars just to see a hummingbird in someone’s backyard or a rare goose in a mountain hot spring is never fully explained beyond the need to be the best in a pursuit that most people only reserve for the weekends.

It’s never clear if this is supposed to be a laugh-out-loud comedy, a meaningful drama about men finding themselves or a little of each. However, by the end, we do understand these men a little more, whether it’s Bostick’s destructive need to prove himself at any cost, Stu deciding to take life a little slower or Brad finding a kindred spirit (Rashida Jones). Hey, when you listen to birdcalls on your iPod in the office, naturally a woman who can imitate anything with a beak is destined to be your fellow lovebird.

“The Big Year” takes some time to take flight, but slowly, surely, it pecks away at you and makes you care about the people involved, even if you have no interest in the many, many birds that fill the sky. Though this may not be the biggest movie for any of its stars, it certainly competes with this year’s “Rio” for the most ornithological film of 2011.

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